Injuries on NFL punts are up 50%: What’s the cause? What’s the fix?


The alarm appeared out of the blue. Within the days main as much as Tremendous Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, the NFL’s well being and security workforce issued a call to action in response to a surge in particular groups accidents, particularly on punts. The speed of missed time for accidents that occurred on punt performs elevated by about 50% over the previous two seasons, in response to league information that up till that time hadn’t been broadly disseminated.

“Earlier than I’m going again there, I say, ‘I do not care about my life.’ Each time,” Indianapolis Colts return man Nyheim Hines stated. “It takes a particular particular person to lookup within the air and have a load of individuals attempting to tear your head off.”

Talking in a sequence of interviews in February, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills stated the uptick in particular groups accidents required “consideration instantly” from league decision-makers. However when the NFL’s house owners, executives and coaches gathered in March for his or her annual league conferences, there was no consensus on what to do. The NFL largely tabled the considerations amid indecision from the competitors committee and pushback from some coaches, who proposed that the spike — particularly in ACL and soft-tissue accidents — was the results of pandemic-related roster strikes. Particular groups performs accounted for 30% of ACL tears and 29% of muscle accidents to decrease extremities — despite the fact that they characterize solely 17% of performs in a typical NFL sport.

Earlier calls to motion, significantly round concussions in 2018, heightened consciousness of a high-priority drawback, resulting in quick rule and protocol adjustments. Reported concussions have dropped about 25% because the league’s 2018 name to motion, however one in six occurred on particular groups in 2021, in response to information the league launched in February. This time, the NFL is poised to play the 2022 season with out addressing the difficulty of particular groups accidents, which the league’s medical workers has proclaimed to be pressing.

“It seems,” Sills stated not too long ago, “that it is a advanced course of.”

A number of coaches — together with the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Mike Tomlin and the Baltimore Ravens‘ John Harbaugh — urged the harm surge may very well be a brief development attributable to distinctive roster administration in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do know we do not just like the harm fee,” Tomlin stated in the course of the conferences in March, “however it does not essentially imply that one thing must be performed structurally or schematically to the punt play. I believe all of those discussions begin in the beginning with wanting on the accidents themselves, wanting on the tape, the accidents that occurred on that play to see why.”

NFL groups churned rosters at an historic fee in the course of the pandemic as they labored to take care of 53-man squads amid waves of constructive checks. Extra gamers appeared in no less than one sport in the course of the 2021 season (2,372) than throughout some other season in NFL historical past, aside from the 1987 strike season, when every franchise signed a whole roster of alternative gamers. The second-highest whole got here in 2020 (2,286), in response to the Elias Sports activities Bureau.

Harbaugh, who claimed that the spike in soft-tissue accidents comparable to pulled hamstrings may very well be lessened by higher conditioning, stated a rule change primarily based on present information could be an “overreach,” and added: “I do not assume it is that massive of an issue.”

Caught in the course of the dialogue, the league’s competitors committee determined to take a seat tight and “go yet another yr and see the place the harm information is,” committee chairman Wealthy McKay stated. That persistence is probably going knowledgeable by the 2018 concussion response, which included the so-called “helmet rule” — an try to scale back contact with lowered heads. That proved so troublesome to officiate that the league instructed referees to confer with it generically as “pointless roughness” once they flag it.

Even earlier than the pandemic, nonetheless, punts had emerged as probably the most harmful play within the NFL. In accordance with league information, accidents suffered in the course of the punt play precipitated the best fee of missed video games on an annual foundation because the 2015 season. Returners and gunners, who’re tasked with working 40 yards or extra at as near full pace as they will get, are the hardest-hit, in response to Sills.

“You’ve gotten athletes working over lengthy distances,” stated Dr. Scott Rodeo, a sports activities drugs surgeon on the Hospital for Particular Surgical procedure and head workforce doctor for the New York Giants. “They’re working at excessive speeds, with a fast plant and lower, decelerations within the open area, and typically it is reckless. If you’re working at very excessive speeds and have collisions at excessive pace, that is a fairly good working principle proper there.”

Each Rodeo and Sills are optimistic about actions the league can take to decrease the ACL-injury fee on punts. Rodeo is monitoring analysis that would assist determine gamers who’re liable to knee ligament tears, decided by components that embody irregular geometry of the knee in addition to deficits in steadiness, coordination and neuromuscular management within the hip and core areas. Making use of that analysis with varied conditioning methods, protecting gear and “delicate rule adjustments,” Rodeo stated, would “give me some optimism you can begin to remedy this drawback by chipping away at it.”

The competitors committee is monitoring a rule adjustment the USFL carried out in its inaugural season. Gunners are required to line up contained in the painted numbers, making it simpler to dam them on the line of scrimmage and maybe harder for them to succeed in most pace. There may very well be different methods to reduce the quantity of area gunners cowl and the pace at which they do it, however in the end, Sills stated, “You at all times wish to make it possible for your resolution addresses the issue.”

At this level, not everybody has agreed there’s a drawback. And for unrelated causes, there are already fewer punts in NFL video games. As coaches shift towards going for it on fourth downs extra incessantly, punt totals have fallen to historic lows. The charges of punts per sport in 2019 (8.4), 2020 (7.4) and 2021 (7.6) are the three lowest for a season since no less than 1981, in response to NFL information.

If something, the lower makes the harm development extra stark. If the harm fee continues in 2022, the NFL may have choices to make in 2023.

“It is a advanced play, however these are the sorts of accidents and the place we’re seeing them,” Sills stated. “And we will proceed [working] on that play. The truth that it is troublesome doesn’t suggest we’re not going to proceed to handle it.”

Contributing: ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells

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