The NFL has taken steps in recent years to better protect defenseless receivers from big hits, but a database of league injuries built by the Observer suggests the league should do more to safeguard defensive backs from concussions as well.
The Observer used data from teams’ final weekly injury reports, official NFL box scores and pro-football-reference.com to build and analyze a spreadsheet of concussions.
The Observer’s analysis showed that both offensive and defensive players in open-field positions were more vulnerable to concussions than linemen.
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Among players who missed at least one game during the 2016 regular season while sitting out with a head injury, 22 were players in positions the NFL moved to protect with defenseless-receiver rules.
Wide receivers (12) and tight ends (10) were among the five position groups who suffered the most concussions, the data show.
But 15 cornerbacks – the most of any position – missed at least one game, as well as 11 safeties.
Linebackers, who also play a big role in run defense, were the other position group in the top five, with 11 players missing at least one game with a concussion.
A total of 93 players missed at least one game because of concussion symptoms, according to the data. Those players sat out an average of 2.5 games.
The five open-field position groups accounted for 59 of the 93 players who missed at least one game with head injuries.
Robert Cantu, a leading concussion expert, believes poor tackling form combined with the inherent collisions in the open field resulted in the relatively high number of concussions among cornerbacks.
“They were tackling with their head,” said Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University’s School of Medicine. “Plus the fact that they’re in the open field so they’re colliding at full speed, whereas the stuff in the (offensive and defensive) line there’s been less of a run-up of speed.
“They’re bigger, stronger, faster – and they’re faster obviously when they’re in the open field. And unfortunately many of them are continuing to use their head for that open-field tackle.”
According to the Observer’s study, there were 130 players on the final injury reports each week with concussions over the 17-week regular season.
Eighty-four were ruled out of that week’s game, according to final injury reports. Others were on injured reserve or ruled questionable and doubtful and held out of the game, too.
That makes concussion the most prevalent reason players were ruled out on the final weekly reports, surpassing ankle (81) and knee injuries (80), the next two most prevalent reasons.
Cantu said that means it’s time for a change. In discussing the Observer’s findings, the Boston-based neurologist said the NFL should legislate safer tackling by following college football’s lead and implementing a targeting penalty.
College players are ejected from games for launching at opposing players or otherwise hitting defenseless players with their helmets.
“If I had my way, the ultimate move that would be made by the NFL is that you cannot target the head as a point of contact,” Cantu said. “It’s going to happen all the time because it’s a big, fast game and guys are at all kinds of elevations. But that’s different than lining up some guy’s head from 10 yards away.
“I think that needs to come out of football. But they’re not there, yet.”
Questioning the tackling
Former Panthers and Chicago Bears defensive back Charles Tillman says he’s proof change is possible.
Tillman played 13 seasons in the NFL before retiring after 2015, and said he suffered two or three concussions during his career. He said he avoided more by tackling with his body and often employing his so-called Peanut punch, using his fist to try to dislodge the ball.
Tillman had some advice for defensive backs who go head-hunting and wind up in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
“I would say punch out the football,” said Tillman, who had 44 career forced fumbles. “That’s how you’ll avoid those concussions. You don’t have to put your head in there. Punch out the damn ball.
“Your hand might be a little sore, but your brain will be intact.”
An answer in Seattle?
Tillman’s idea is not the only style change that shows promise.
In Seattle, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and his staff began teaching rugby-style tackling a few years ago to promote player safety. The technique is based more on leverage rather than defenders leading with their heads.
The Seahawks were among the teams in The Observer’s data with only one player who had missed at least one game with a concussion – fullback Will Tukuafu went on injured reserve in Week 14.
Cantu, the Boston University concussion expert, believes the so-called Hawk tackles are a step in the right direction.
“I’m very supportive of the tackle rugby-style that they employ,” Cantu said. “And if they can consistently be in the bottom of the number of concussions, that would be validation that that style should be adopted by other teams – assuming that’s the only reason other than chance that they didn’t have more concussions.”
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More on Observer’s NFL injuries database
Concussions by position in 2016
The Observer’s database showed position groups involved in the passing game, either on offense or defense, had the most players who missed at least one game because of a concussion in 2016. The breakdown by position:
Source: NFL, pro-football-reference.com