NFL Concussion Conundrum is Enough to Make You Feel Woozy

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One of the biggest headlines during the 2010 season was the issue of player safety, most notably concussions. After a congressional hearing criticized the NFL for not taking the matter more seriously, the NFL took to the issue with a renewed fervor. What resulted was mass confusion for everyone; players, coaches, referees, the media and the fans had no idea what constituted an illegal hit.

This was followed by frustration by many players, most notably Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, who was fined upwards of $10,000 per infraction. Harrison lead the league in fines (with over $100,000) and criticism (with a meeting with commissioner Roger Godell in New York and a fiery jab during the Super Bowl media day) and even threatened to retire should these fines continue.

I believe that the NFL is heading in the right direction, concussions are a serious matter and the ramifications for players as they retire and grow older can be devastating, but the system with which officials determine what constitutes an illegal hit and the repercussions that the NFL enforces afterwards are a little baffling.

The first issue, of course, is what constitutes an illegal hit due to the threat of concussion. While some hits, such as the Julius Peppers’ hit on Aaron Rodgers during the NFC championship game are pretty obvious, others, most notably when defenders end up hitting quarterbacks on the head, are a little harder to explain (such as Trent Cole’s “hit” on Peyton Manning this season). Perhaps if Deacon Jones was still playing and axe chopping quarterbacks that might be an issue, but usually these penalties occur when defenders are trying to bat balls or throwing arms and their hand coincidentally ends up touching the quarterback’s helmet.

The second issue comes from how penalties are handed out. These hits are treated as personal fouls, with a 15 yard penalty, an automatic first down and a likely monetary fine somewhere down the road. A 15 yard penalty with an automatic first down is a good start, the percentage of success for an offense rise exponentially based on their position, so usually such a large penalty will result in points, but if a cornerback can be penalized 45+ yards for pass interference holding by a wide receiver’s arm, hitting a defenseless receiver or knocking out the quarterback should probably be a bigger penalty.

The monetary penalty is down right laughable; for leading with the helmet against a quarterback (say what you will about parity, but quarterbacks are definitely better protected by the rules and the officials than any other position), Julius Peppers was fined $10,000. To put this into prospective, Julius Peppers probably made about $12-13 million dollars this season(probably more, depending on his incentives for sacks and his Pro Bowl berth), which means that he makes $10,000 in about 8 hours, even when he’s asleep.

Add to the fact that Peppers will only be making even more money as his contract continues (he’s scheduled to make $16.5 million in his last year on base salary alone) and it becomes pretty obvious that $10,000 is chump change for Peppers. Furthermore, its debatable whether or not from an economic standpoint it makes sense for Peppers to be concerned, its likely he would make more money by hitting his sack escalator than having to pay a $10,000 fine every time he sacked a quarterback (For instance, Terrell Suggs hit his sack escalator of 40 in 2007 and netted himself a $5 million bonus, if he were penalized for every one of those sacks at $10,000 a piece, he still would be making $4.5 million dollars more).

The final penalty, perhaps the most laughable of all, is to suspend players for a game or two. First this makes no sense from a gameplay perspective. Why should knocking out a team’s quarterback benefit the next weeks team? It doesn’t make much sense from an economic standpoint either. Big name players often are involved in big hits and suspending players will effect the popularity of the sport, and as a result, the profits as well. The NFL is fully aware of this and has yet to suspend a player for illegal hits, and its becoming obvious (after it seemed like James Harrison was getting fined every week) that the NFL will do everything in its power not to suspend a player.

So what are the solutions? First is of course to ride out the storm. At the moment, everyone is confused by what constitutes an illegal hit, but as time goes on, players, coaches and officials will get a better feel of the rules and the worst thing to do now is to try to drastically change the rules to make players feel more comfortable. Players had issues when offensive lineman were allowed to use their hands and when cornerbacks were only allowed to contact receivers during the 1st 5 yards and I see this rule in much the same way, players might not like it initially, but with time and consistency, they will learn to accept it.

Second is to do more research on protective equipment. Hard hits are inevitable in football and modern technology has undoubtedly saved many lives. One question I have is why players have the option of using a more concussion safe helmet. After his two concussions Aaron Rodgers switched over to a new helmet, which he has credited with saving him from a concussion during the Julius Peppers hit. Why aren’t all players wearing these helmets?

Finally, I think the most fitting penalty would be a 15 yard penalty with an automatic first down and a timed penalty for the player, much like the penalty box in hockey. For instance, the first penalty in the game could net a player 3 minutes on the bench with increasing times for more penalties. This way, players who throw illegal hits are penalized against the current teams and the effect would be immediate.

If one thing that all players agree upon is a love for a game, and having to watch the game on the sideline while your backup attempts to not screw up might put enough fear in the punishment that players would actively try to avoid dangerous hits. This also will give big advantage to the offense, imagine what the Bears would look like without Julius Peppers for a drive.

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Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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  • steve

    Mandating a corrective mouth guard use for two decades by NFL players, at least to those cases where both damaged jaw cartilage or boxers glass jaw and a concussion history exist is a good place to start. New data supported by a research inititive undertaken by the Pentagon and peer reviewed by a Harvard expert, suggests a mandate is needed. No doubt Peppers hit to Rogers face was not protected by the helmet.
    Cantu stated in congressional testimony, these blows to the chin, like kevin Kolb, Sidney Crosby or Mark Savard recieved, are a factor and should by the focus in jaw related cases. Nocsae officials have stated, helmets can’t be improved any better at this point, these medically fit appliances, unlike common tooth protecting mouth guards, are the last level of protecting that hss not been properly investigated. http://www.mahercor.com

    • Thomas Hobbes

      “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. patent office, 1899

  • Chad Toporski

    I really like your idea of the timed penalty, a la hockey. For all the talk of expelling players from games, I think this is a good compromise that gets left out of the discussion.

    Question, though… would you rather see the penalty measured in clock time or snaps?

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Thanks, I thought of that question too, I also thought of doing it the number of stats that your squad plays (like a defensive player losing 10 defensive snaps), but that would seem to put a disadvantage on running teams (and they are at such a huge disadvantage anyways). I guess keeping track of penalties based on snaps would be easier than based off time, since football is such a temporally disjointed game.

  • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

    I like the idea of a “penalty box”, too, but it’s not perfect. Players could take advantage based on whether their team is way ahead or not. What happens if the penalty is in the last minute of the game (maybe increased yardage?) So, there will still be questions, but I agree with penalizing the player in THAT game, somehow.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Huh, I hadn’t thought of that; obviously if your team is way ahead you it causes the most potential risks for the players, for one defenses are going to be “pinning their ears back” for the quarterback and wide receivers are going to play a much bigger role. Are there more illegal hits when the score differential is big? I really have no idea, but my guess would be that its pretty evenly spread out. As for the an illegal hit on the last play, maybe a yardage penalty and a redo?

  • Wiscokid

    Clearly the hit on Rodgers was well worth the price paid by Peppers. You are correct that $10k penalty is chump change to a guy like Peppers. I kind of like the penalty box idea but even that isn’t sufficient when you talk about doing permanent damage to another player. Trouble is that is difficult to prove intent otherwise I think you should suspend these guys from the league.

    As far as protection goes, maybe the league should look at a helmet design similar to the full face helmets that some motorcyclist wear that allow for greater protection around the jaw.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      BTW, Wisco, it was great meeting you in Dallas! I don’t remember, are you on twitter?

      • Wiscokid

        Back at you Al. To answer your question, yes I have a Twitter account but no I don’t use it. I was getting so much superfluous stuff I quit paying any attention to it. Maybe I’ll start looking at it again. I’ll let you know when I do.

  • Bearmeat

    The entire Un-necessary roughness penalty needs to be looked at. It’s maddeningly inconsistent. Kind of like P.I. :)

    And I look forward to AR getting more protection from the refs now that he’s won a couple “big games”.

    • Ron LC

      Agree Bear, consistency is the answer. That means the NFL needs to traing their officials better than they do now.

      This is a long, complicted discussion and requires a lot of thought.

  • http://Www.medsecintl.com Matt evenhouse

    Look at a recent lawrence Livermore laboratory study comparing the pads in the us army helmets to the NFL helmets. The army’s padding outperformed NFL helmets in all tests. One quick step the NFL can take is to adopt the best protective equipment available while the search for the best mix of regulations, equipment and practices goes on.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Do you have a link for that?