Your verification ID is: guDlT7MCuIOFFHSbB3jPFN5QLaQ Big Computing: Does the NFL realy need Kickoffs?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Does the NFL realy need Kickoffs?

This year the NFL moved the spot for the Kickoff up five yards and limited the run up for players to five yards as well. The stated goal of this was to reduce injury, but I am not sure I agree with that position. If the goal was to reduce injuries on kickoffs, they would have eliminated the two man wedge. Wedges have been an ongoing problem with football since inception. Players using interlocking wedge formations in the early years of football caused so many injuries and deaths that it threatened the future of the game itself. It was only the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt himself that saved the game by implementing rules that reduced injuries and deaths while emphasizing sportsmanship. There are lots of Articles on this, but I like this simple one by the Theodore Roosevelt Association which I will reprint here:"
President Roosevelt saves the game. . .
Strange as it may seem, high school football, college football, and even the Super Bowl might not exist today if President Theodore Roosevelt had not taken a hand in preserving the game. As originally played on college campuses, the game was extremely rough, including slugging, gang tackling and unsportsmanlike behavior. Quite a number of players died (18 in just the year 1905 alone, with 20 times fewer players than there are today). Interest in becoming a football player was declining!
But Roosevelt saw merit in the game. It built bodies and could build character, a sense of team and never giving up. Ten of the Rough Riders, the soldiers who fought with him in Cuba, gave their occupations as football players when they enlisted in 1898.
So in 1905, President Roosevelt summoned representatives of the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the universities who first played the game and who also set the rules of play) to the White House. In his best table-thumping style, Theodore Roosevelt convinced them that the rules needed to be changed to eliminate the foul play and brutality.
As a result, the American Football Rules Committee was formed and, in 1906, plays designed to open up the game and make it less dangerousd to play were introduced. Some of the changes made included:
  • the introduction of the forward pass,
  • the distance to be gained for a first down increased from five to ten yards,
  • all mass formations and gang tackling were banned.
Football became less dangerous to play, injuries and deaths decreased, and it became more fun to watch.
Adapted from:
The Roosevelt Rough Writer: the newsletter for volunteers in park at Sagamore Hill, Vol 1, Issue 4, Jan. 17, 1998
The NCAA web site, fall 1999,"

There were real problems with the way football was played in 1905. There were 18 deaths in that single year which is a shocking number considering how few people who actually played the game! The death per year for football has decreased since then to its current rate of around 4 deaths per year. Most of this improvement can be attributed to rule changes and better safety equipment. 

I did not die playing football, and I was never very good. The best thing that can be said about my playing career is that I had really good seats. However, I did get a ton of injuries. My knees are shot, one hip is just not right, and I have spinal issues. I believe most of those issues would not have happened with better coaching early in my career and more rule changes to protect the head and lower body. Improved equipment always helps as well.

I ran across this article about injury rates in the NFL over the last decade. I think this is a disturbing trend because it shows an upward tend injuries in all facets of the game:


Sep 11, 2011

Will the New Kickoff Rules Really Reduce Injuries?

The NFL play-by-play reports when players are injured on each play, or at least when the injury stops play so trainers can attend to the injured player. These are far from 100% all injuries suffered in the course of play, but they are the ones that tend to be significant or severe--ACLs, broken bones, separated shoulders, concussions--the kind of things that really worry players, teams, and the league.

With that information in hand, we can see the injury rates for each type of play, including kickoffs.

Injuries are increasing for all types of plays over the last decade. Last season, the injury rate was 1.6% on runs, 1.5% on passes, 1.3% on punts, and 2.0% on kickoffs. The graph illustrates there is something systemic at work increasing injuries at predictably steady rate, or at least increasing the reporting of injuries. Because of the very real concern around the NFL, I'd assume most of the increase is real.

(If I had to guess, the simultaneous near-doubling of injuries on all play types between 2004 and 2005 could be due to an increased effort to report injuries in the play-by-play. But even accounting for that jump, injuries are still steadily on the rise. I also suspect the drop in injuries in 2010 for passes and runs may not be just statistical noise and could be due to enforcement of helmet-to-helmet hits.)

Increasing the number of touchbacks will certainly reduce the number of kickoff injury rates simply by reducing the number of return plays. Needless to say, the fewer the kick returns there are, the fewer the injuries there will be. The question becomes: How much of a reduction can the NFL expect?

It's hard to estimate how many more touchbacks there will be under the new rules. Kickers may kick higher but shorter, or returners may decide to return the ball from deeper in the endzone than in previous years due to the shorter run-up allowed to the coverage team. But there is preseason data to work with. Because of weather factors (temperature is far more important to kick distances than most think) and other considerations, we'll compare the 2010 preseason to the 2011 preseason.

In 2010 the preseason touchback rate was 19.5%, and in 2011 it doubled to 39.4%. That equates to a 24.8% reduction in returnable kicks (60.6% / 80.5% = 75.2%). The NFL can expect a proportional reduction in injuries on kickoffs, reducing the rate from 2.0% to 1.5%. (We'll plan to revisit the actual numbers later this season.)

But what does this mean in real terms? How many injuries will this prevent?

In 2010, there were about 9.5 kickoffs per game, which is consistent with the previous 10 years. So reducing the injury rate by half a percent won't add up to much. Instead of the 51 kickoff injuries in 2010, we might expect about 38 in 2011. Thirteen fewer injuries over 32 teams and 267 games from week one through the Super Bowl. That's a reduction of 0.024 injuries per team per game--imperceptibly small and meaningless in practical terms.

Again, not all injuries are reported in the play-by-play. But even if we stipulate that this estimate is an entire order of magnitude too small, that's still only 0.2 fewer injuries per team per game!

Further, looking back at the graph above, it appears that over the past few years, injury rates on kickoffs are in line with those on run and pass plays. In fact, in 2008 and 2009 the kickoff injury rates were lower than for typical scrimmage plays. Getting rid of the two-minute warning in the first half, a gimmick that only allows extra commercials, would have a similar injury-reducing effect just by reducing the number of pass and run plays.

In my mind, this miniscule reduction in injuries does not justify ruining one of the more exciting plays in the game. The trade off just isn't wise--there are better ways to address injury reduction. Even if the kickoff injuries are significantly reduced this season, whatever factors have been causing injuries in general to increase remain unaddressed. Those are the things the league needs to fix, or else injury rates will be back on the climb.

As it stands today, the entire NFL post-score kabuki dance is unwatchable. First there's an automatic review that could take up to several minutes featuring two beer and two car commercials. Then there's the virtually automatic extra point, the NFL's version of...well, I can't think of anything else in the universe so pointless. Now throw in the touchback, followed by Dennis Leary hocking Ford F150s and a positively terrifying ad for some horror/sado-torture movie that gives every kid under 13 nightmares for the next week, plus one for Cialis and one for whatever lame hour-long drama featuring a tough-cookie hot single mom NYPD detective is going to be cancelled on CBS later this fall. Then it's back to some moron sideline reporter who tells us something we either already knew or could just as easily be relayed through the booth announcers. Then, finally, it's back to the game."

I never believed that the Special Teams plays were the most exciting plays in football nor do I agree that a penalty shot is the most exciting thing in hockey. The essence of football is plays from the line of scrimmage. Special Teams arose simply because teams needed a method to transfer possession  from one team to another. I would be in favor of eliminating Special Teams from the game if it significantly reduced the amount of injuries in football. However, it would not. Changes in rules need to address how these injuries are happening. If the problem is head and neck injuries change the rules to protect the head and neck. If the issue is leg injuries changes the rules to protect players legs. Implement spacing rules on the line, ban double teams, slide blocks and all cutting. Finally develop equipment to address the root cause of injuries. I have not seen research on it, but I have often heard that switching to soft shelled helmets and pads would reduce the impact and therefore the injuries in football.



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