By Joe Lemire
September 4, 2018
This four-part series examines the NFL’s $60 million investment in the Engineering Roadmap to develop research and technology to make football safer. This part discusses the data behind the controversial helmet rule. Part two outlines the engineering work supporting the roadmap. Part three discusses the crowdsourcing of innovative solutions. Part four looks at the future of the program and a new data collection device.
A major storyline looming over the 2018 NFL season is the so-called “helmet rule,” a new edict announced last March against players lowering their head to initiate contact. The league’s Competition Committee has assigned a 15-yard personal foul penalty to the violation, with ejections possible, too.
Players, coaches, and major newspapers have admonished the change, calling the rule “idiotic,”forecasting that it will “cost some people some jobs,” and saying that it has been wreaking “havoc”on the preseason. There were 51 helmet rule penalties in just the first two weeks of games, before the calls tapered off to 20 over the last two weeks.
The disruption to play, however, might be worth the cost of the remedy. Not only did last season witness a record 291 reported concussions among NFL players, but also the incidence of those traumatic brain injuries emanating from helmet-to-helmet impact has been climbing. In 2017, 46 percent of concussions occurred after a helmet-to-helmet collision; that’s compared to 36 percent over the two previous years. Research has indicated a link between repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head and CTE, a degenerative brain disease.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, issued a “call to action” in February. NFL chief operating officer Maryann Turcke said league coaches were a proponent of the rule change, which she expects will “make the game better—yes, safer, but it’s going to make the game better.”
“You’re going to see better enforcement,” said NFL EVP for health and safety Jeff Miller. “That goes to rules changes that are designed against specific behaviors that are more likely to cause injury and hence the use of the helmet rule, just like you would have seen in the implementation of speed limits, right? You need to help change people’s behavior in that way.”
The concussion numbers above are just the highest-level executive summary of an enormous amount of data on injuries, protective equipment testing, and player safety measures being collected by the league. All of this falls under the NFL’s ambitious $100 million investment in the Play Smart. Play Safe. health and safety initiative revealed in Sept. 2016. Of that sum, $60 million has been allocated to Football Research, Inc., a nonprofit established to oversee the Engineering Roadmap.
This data-driven work is trying to usher in a new and safer era of football. Testing is taking place far from any practice field or stadium and primarily in the hands of university researchers. Best practices and advanced tools from the world of automotive safety are being applied. The Engineering Roadmap is a broad endeavor spanning forensic reviews of injuries, technical research, complex toolkit development, and crowdsourced innovation.
While the NFL Players Association reportedly did not have much input on the passage of the helmet rule, the scientific work underpinning its implementation is taking place in strong collaboration with the union’s consultants. So, say what you will about the application of the new rule—and the players have—but the impetus for the penalty is well-intentioned. Sills has called the helmet rule “a huge component” of the league’s injury reduction strategy based on analysis of data and biomechanics.
“The NFL has done a fantastic job of continuing to try and protect the football players,” said Tony Romo, the longtime Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst, who added about the overall safety initiatives: “They have enough data to really understand [what’s happening], and you have to applaud them for going to get that data.”
The league’s urgency in adopting the helmet rule was partly shaped by engineering workinvestigating the cause and severity of concussive blows on the game field. Helmet-to-helmet blows accounted for about two-thirds of all concussions some 20 years ago before a dramatic decline. In the last few years, however, that has crept up from a quarter to a third back to nearly a half.
Concussions aren’t the only consequence. Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury last December after lowering his head to make a tackle. The engineering research shows that both the tackler and the ball carrier are at a greater risk of injury when one player initiates contact with his helmet.
“The NFL has implemented many rule changes over the years to reduce these helmet-to-helmet impacts,” said Richard Kent, the deputy director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics. “We saw an increase, and one [of] the things we did was say, ‘Let’s look at the underlying player behavior that’s leading to these helmet-to-helmet impacts that we’re not getting at with the some of the current rules that were in place.’
“That was one of the instigators of looking at player behavior that led to a new, lowering the head or leading with the head to initiate contact rule that came into play for the upcoming season.”
Overseeing the research work is Jeff Crandall, the U.Va. biomechanics lab director and chairman of the NFL’s Engineering Committee. He and Kent described a collaborative process that included the Competition Committee, medical staffs, and the engineering group.
“What we had initially come in with, I think, is a focus on equipment and understanding what was happening with equipment on field,” Kent said. “It quickly became apparent through these multi-disciplinary teams that we could provide supporting data for other initiatives that would also have an impact.”
Kent and Miller both outlined three E’s of injury prevention: engineering, education, and enforcement. In all, 50 safety-driven rule changes have been implemented since 2002.
“All of those things—the better equipment from an engineering perspective, the rules enforcement, as well as educating the players—all work together to improve safety,” Miller said. “Those are all three threads that we’re going to have to continue to emphasize going forward.”
“We know there is skepticism about our work in this area,” Goodell wrote. “That’s why both the process and the results of our work will be shared with the medical community and the public at large.”
Goodell insisted that the league would “let science lead the way.” Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFLPA’s medical director, recently shared the sentiment that this “really is a joint effort” with the league. That’s true of both collaboration and communication.
“We all know that that isn’t always easy to do, but I think in both cases here, they are interested in player safety, interested in improving the safety of the game, and recognizing that—to be successful in doing so—we have to work on this together,” said NFLPA consultant Kristy Arbogast, the director of engineering for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Longtime kicker-turned-CBS analyst Jay Feely served on the NFLPA’s executive committee for years. He affirmed the consensus that the NFL and the labor union both desire to make the game safer and that the league is holding up its end of the bargain.
“I think they’re the forefront, now with the new helmet rule and what they’re trying to create as far as the position for tackling,” Feely said. He added with a laugh, “Some people feel like they’ve gone too far.”