Let’s start with the good news: The NFL is doing better in terms of injury prevention, sports medicine and rehabilitation than it ever has. The most notable issue for the NFL is concussions, and while their current system isn’t perfect, the NFL has been open to iterating it quickly, which has helped. So let’s all give them a hand for getting better.
Now it’s time to go a step further. In fact, let’s go three steps further. I have three suggestions for the NFL that could improve the game, reduce injuries and help the game at lower levels at the same time. None of these have significant costs above and beyond what the league is already doing, so there’s really no reason the league and its players couldn’t put all of these into place.
I won’t pretend I have the only ideas or even the best ones, but I’ll be curious to see what you, the readers and the fans, think. I asked my network of sources inside and outside the game, which include some of the best minds in sports medicine and sports science, for their opinions on these ideas and they were almost universally positive about the ability for these to make some real changes. Few thought that those ideas would be rapidly implemented, but at heart, I’m an optimist.
RAPID ADOPTION OF WEARABLE SENSORS
The NFL already has experimented with sensors and is using some now. The creation of the modern smartphone and gaming hardware has created a massive increase in the effectiveness and miniaturization of these small sensors. The same kind of gyroscopes and motion sensors that help your iPhone or Xbox controller sense motion could help with sports science as well.
The first and most simple sensor would be a location sensor in the ball. The NFL has done some experimentation with this in two ways. First, they are testing it in the “K” balls to see whether or not it could be used to definitively say whether a kick was good or not. The league also is measuring where balls go through to determine what the best width for the goalposts would be to reduce the number of field goals in the game. (It’s not just fantasy players that hate kickers.) That same sensor could be used as it is in soccer to determine where and whether a ball crossed the goal line, went inside the pylon or even got the first down. While systems would have to be created in 33 stadiums, these types of systems have been used and validated in many sports.
The second easy way to use sensor data would be to use the current sensor that players have embedded in their shoulder pads. The use of these in “NextGen” stats is very limited and even teams don’t seem to be paying much attention to the data. An increased use in this would be amazing for broadcast, but even there where we could see plays “drawing themselves up” on screen or seeing how fast that kick returner was going could be entertaining and enlightening, there’s not much interest in using this. The NFL could just glance at MLB (Statcast) and the NBA (StatVu) to realize they’re falling behind. By not only not using this data, but also not making it publicly available, they’re only hurting themselves.
Finally, impact sensors in the helmets could end the nightmare of trying to diagnose concussions visually. The NFL and NFLPA did experiments with this, but abandoned it without much explanation. Imagine a system where a threshold is set and any time a player anywhere on the field is hit and exceeds this threshold, he’s brought out of the game and tested. It would go directly to the sideline, where the in-place communication system could be used to send someone out of the game if need be. The opposing team doesn’t have to know and isn’t incentivized to do this.
In addition, we could de-incentivize players to do this by getting a list of plays for the league office to review. Every hit that exceeded the threshold would be checked to see if a player targeted another player’s head. The fines alone could pay for this system many times over.
There are other types of sensors that could be used as well — heart rate, breathing, fatigue, sweat/hydration, eye trackers — but a simple start here would be a good one. None of this is science fiction since every kind of sensor I just mentioned is likely in your smart phone right now. Sensors could help by reducing injuries and giving a new source of data that could help football operations as well as sports science.
EXPERIMENTATION IN PRESEASON
I don’t know anyone, aside from coaches and agents, who really likes the preseason. Even then, they’ll acknowledge that the current structure is bad for fans and for most players. I have a suggestion that could help this, as well as advance our knowledge: Use these meaningless exhibition games to experiment with new rules and techniques.
Imagine using the first preseason game across the league to do something novel. Ever wonder what the NFL would look like if quarterbacks had a red non-contact jersey in games? Do it in the preseason. What would the NFL look like if they played the kind of flag football they promote for youth? Do it in the preseason. What would the NFL look like with a weight limit? Do it in the preseason. New kickoff rules? Extra-point variants? A “penalty box” for fouls? All of these could be tested in the preseason.
The NHL regularly uses preseason and special camps to test rules and strategy changes. This is merely the same strategy and, frankly, one that might create a little more visual interest while still giving coaches and players the chance to evaluate the players at the back of their rosters. Doing these kinds of experiments league-wide would give enough of a sample size and variance to see just how well (or how poorly) they work.
I’ll be honest, I really would like to see what an NFL level flag football game would look like.
THE SALARY CAP SOLUTION
The question that many people ask — and it’s a lame question to be honest — is how to pay for any new systems or hires. With sports medicine and sports science, the hires almost always pay for themselves over time. Some teams in European soccer are outspending NFL teams by astronomical, even unthinkable levels. There are at least two NFL teams that I could confirm had no budget for sports science or research projects. I suspect that number could be as high as eight. A team like Real Madrid has an internal guideline of spending one euro on research for every hundred they spend on salary.
Imagine that in the NFL. The salary cap this year, without adjustments, is $155 million. There is no team approaching $15 million in terms of sports science. Even on a league level, the league has committed only $100 million but that is over a period of years. That’s a good start, but how can we take this up even more?
The answer is simple and uses the players as a partner. Each year, the salary cap is adjusted based on league revenue. In 2016, the number went up to $155 million. It was at $123 million in 2013, so the increase is big and steady. It has actually worried teams how much it has gone up, but what if we used this increase in a different way to make the game better?
I’d propose taking a percentage of the salary cap increase, up to 50 percent, and using it for research. This would have to be a league-wide mandate, not a way for teams to choose to drop their salary cap, or have a disincentive to contribute to research and science. Last year, the $12 million increase in each team’s salary cap could have created a nearly $200 million research fund! That would be double what the league has done in a decade and, guess what, there’s more coming next year.
This would be an amazing advance, a quantum leap for the league, all without increasing costs. It’s like finding a couple hundred million dollars in the couch cushions. Yes, the players would lose out on the salary increase, but I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t see even more benefit from this kind of research.
One team physician I spoke with wondered whether the league could find enough research to use the entire pool. I would certainly hope this would increase people doing the kind of research the league could use, or it could designate some percentage that goes unused to come back into something like cancer research or to help fund player assistance or any number of other programs. We won’t know until we try and even taking a smaller percentage would create a great opportunity that would help more than just the NFL.
These suggestions could be implemented tomorrow, or at least quickly. They’re hardly the only options or perfect solutions to any of the problems the NFL has, but if nothing else, it would show that the league, the teams and the players are very serious about making the game safer and better for the future.