The alarm sounded out of the blue. In the days before Super Bowl LVI on February 13, the NFL’s health and safety team issued a call to action calling for action on the punt, in particular, in response to the increase in injuries to special teams. According to league statistics, until that point was widely publicized, the rate of missed time for injuries incurred on punt plays has increased by almost 50% over the past two seasons.
“Before I go back there, I say, ‘I don’t care about my life.’ Every time,” said Indianapolis Colts return man Nyahim Hines. “It takes a special person to look into the air and there are loads of people trying to rip your head off.”
Speaking in a series of interviews in February, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Alan Sills said the increase in injuries to special teams requires “immediate attention” from league decision-makers. But when NFL owners, executives and coaches gathered for their annual league meetings in March, there was no consensus on what to do. The NFL sparked concerns amid massive competition committee indecision and pushback from some coaches, who proposed that the spike — particularly in ACL and soft-tissue injuries — was the result of roster moves related to the pandemic. ACL tears account for 30% of plays in special teams and 29% of lower extremity muscle injuries – even though they represent only 17% of plays in a typical NFL game.
Previous calls to action, particularly around concussions in 2018, raised awareness of a high-priority problem, prompting immediate rule and protocol changes. Reported results have dropped by about 25% since the league’s 2018 call to action, but according to league data released in February, one in six occurred in special teams in 2021. This time around, the NFL is ready to play the 2022 season without addressing the issue of special teams injuries, which the league’s medical staff has announced urgently.
“It turns out,” Sills said recently, “it’s a complicated process.”
Several coaches, including Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, suggested the injury escalation could be a temporary trend due to unique roster management during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know we don’t like the injury rate,” Tomlin said during meetings in March, “but that doesn’t mean there has to be something structural or planned to play punt. I think it’s All the discussion begins first and foremost looking at the injuries themselves, watching the tapes, seeing the injuries in that play why.”
NFL teams churned out rosters at a historic rate during the pandemic as they worked to maintain 53-man squads amid waves of positive tests. More players appeared in at least one game during the 2021 season (2,372) than any other season in NFL history, with the exception of the 1987 strike season, when each franchise signed an entire roster of replacement players. According to Ilyas Sports Bureau, the second highest total came in 2020 (2,286).
Harbaugh, who claimed that better conditioning could reduce soft-tissue injuries such as pulled hamstrings, said a rule change would be an “overreach” based on current data, adding: “I don’t think It’s too big of a problem.”
In the midst of the discussion, the league’s competition committee decided to sit tight and “one more year and see where the injury figures are,” said committee chairman Rich McKay. That patience is informed by the 2018 feedback response, which included the so-called “helmet rule”—an attempt to minimize contact with the lower head. The task proved so difficult to do that the league instructed referees to refer to it commonly as “unnecessary roughness” when they flagged it.
Even before the pandemic, however, the punt had emerged as the most dangerous sport in the NFL. According to league data, injuries sustained while playing punts have the highest rate of missed games on an annual basis since the 2015 season. According to Sills, returners and gunners, who are tasked with running at full speed for 40 yards or more, are the hardest hit.
Sports medicine surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and head team physician for the New York Giants, Dr. Scott Rodeo said, “You have athletes running long distances.” “They’re running fast, with a fast plant and cut, slowdown in open ground, and sometimes it’s reckless. When you’re running too fast and hit at high speed, it There’s a very good working principle. There.”
Rodeo and Sills are both optimistic about what steps the league can take to reduce the ACL-injury rate on punts. Rodeo is monitoring research that could help identify players who are at risk of a knee ligament tear, determined by factors that include abnormal geometry of the knee as well as those in the hip and core regions. Includes deficits in balance, coordination and neuromuscular control. Applying that research with various conditioning techniques, protective equipment, and “subtle rule changes,” Rodeo said, “would give me some optimism that you can start to solve this problem by taking it off.”
The Competition Committee is overseeing rule adjustments implemented by the USFL in its inaugural season. Gunners need to line up inside painted numbers, which makes it easy to block them on the line of scrimmage and perhaps make it difficult for them to reach maximum speed. There may be other ways to reduce the amount of space gunner covers and the speed at which they do it, but ultimately, Sills said, “you always want to make sure that your solution solves the problem.”
At this point, not everyone agrees that there is a problem. And for reasons unrelated, there are already fewer punts in NFL games. As coaches tend to go for it more frequently on fourth down, punt totals have plummeted to historic lows. According to NFL data, punt rates per game in 2019 (8.4), 2020 (7.4) and 2021 (7.6) are the three lowest for a season since at least 1981.
In any case, the deficiency exacerbates the tendency for injury. If injury rates continue in 2022, the NFL will have to make decisions in 2023.
“It’s a complicated sport, but those are the types of injuries and where we are seeing them,” Sills said. “And we’re going to continue [working] on that play. The fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean we won’t continue to address it.”
Contribution: ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells