Days before this year’s Super Bowl, the NFL released a call to action that addressed a recent surge in team injuries, particularly in relation to punts.
In February of this year, the NFL’s health and safety department released data that showed an increase of injuries based on missed punts by roughly 50% over the past two seasons, which is statistically significant. Given the noteworthy increase, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills conducted league-wide interviews to address the issue.
However, some coaches argued that this dramatic spike in injury could be attributed to the result of post-pandemic roster decisions, as many teams had an unstable lineup due to positive COVID-19 test results from highly acclaimed players. John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, implied that untrained players are more susceptible to injury and shared that better conditioning would be more practical than a rule change. “I don’t think it’s that big of a problem,” he commented.
Still, when looking at the typical rate of injuries to soft tissue in the league, there is a clear disparity. According to ESPN, teams suffer from 30% of ACL tears and 29% of muscle injuries to lower extremities, despite typically only representing 17% of plays in a regular NFL season game.
Although the league has moved forward with preventative measures for the previous calls to action, such as the 2018 appeal to raise awareness about concussions which ultimately led to a change of rules and a decrease in head trauma, community members believe this specific issue is beyond management.
NFL coach Mike Tomlin argues that structural changes don’t need to be made to prevent punt-related injuries
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“I know we don’t like the injury rate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that something needs to be done structurally or schematically to the punt play,” Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked about the issue. “I think all of these discussions start first and foremost with looking at the injuries themselves, looking at the tape, the injuries that occurred on that play to see why.”
But, evidence was found prior to the pandemic that suggests punts are among the most dangerous play in the NFL. Since 2015, data shows that injuries from punts lead to the highest rate of game absences.
“You have athletes running over long distances,” Dr. Scott Rodeo, a sports medicine surgeon, and New York Giants physician, shared. “They’re running at high speeds, with a rapid plant and cut, decelerations in the open field, and sometimes it’s reckless. When you’re running at very high speeds and have collisions at high speed, that’s a pretty good working theory right there.”
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