The NFL has a concussion problem — that's nothing new. But after watching Rob Gronkowski get carted off the field last week after suffering a major knee injury, it got me wondering: Does the NFL have a helmet problem, too?
Gronkowski tore at least the ACL and MCL in his right knee after Cleveland safety T.J. Ward drove helmet-first directly into the knee. The helmet protected Ward from suffering a serious head injury, but also caused significant damage to Gronkowski, saddling him with another extensive surgery and rehabilitation process this coming offseason.
The NFL's competition committee has been monitoring hits to the knee and below this season, and the topic of whether those hits should be outlawed from the game will likely be reviewed during the offseason.
But there's a theory that has been kicked around over the last five years, that taking helmets out of football might actually make the game safer. Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, one of the NFL's most physical receivers over the last two decades, actually advocated for this last December.
"If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off. Play old-school football with the leather helmets, no facemask," he said. "When you put a helmet on you're going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon."
As we see with players like Gronkowski and Miami's Dustin Keller, who suffered an even more devastating knee injury in the preseason, the helmet can sometimes inflict a lot of damage.
Players don't wear helmets in rugby and Australian rules football, and those games can be just as physical.
"Everyone playing the game has an understanding that no one has a helmet on, so it's kind of a group effort to keep your head out of the contact area," said Patriots safety Nate Ebner, a former standout on the US junior national rugby team. "As a tackler you have to use your shoulders, your body, and you can't just dive in with your head."
Removing the helmet represents a seismic shift in how football is played, and the NFL likely won't consider it any time soon. Ebner himself thinks it's "crazy" to consider, and that he "couldn't imagine football without helmets."
Emerson Hospital's Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading researcher of brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the vice president of the National Organizing Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, admits that the NFL would probably have fewer concussions if the helmet were removed from the game.
"Yes it's true — you wouldn't be tackling with your head," he said. "The yin and the yang is that helmets are made so well today that it doesn't hurt to hit with your head, and it's a pretty effective maneuver."
Of course, that's only part of the story. Concussions and devastating knee injuries may decrease without helmets, but incidental contact and the speed of the game would lead to far more catastrophic injuries — hemorrhaging, skull fractures, and others that can lead to death. Cantu points out that the spacing in football players reaching full sprints on punts and kickoff plays, receivers and defensive backs reaching high-end speeds on passing plays — makes it a much different sport than rugby.
"The sport just doesn't lend itself to playing without head protection the way rugby does," Cantu said. "You'd be trading leading with your head and blowing out knees and concussions, for much more serious injuries that I don't think people would accept."
But while removing the helmet is too radical for the NFL, many around the league believe that something has to be done about a potential "knee" crisis. Gronkowski was the 41st player to suffer a season-ending knee injury this year, up from 32 last year and 25 the year before. The obvious answer is to outlaw hits at the knee and lower.
But that's easier said than done. It's already hard enough for players to avoid hitting up high while running and reacting at full speed, let alone outlaw hits to the legs as well. And for most defensive backs like Ward, listed at 200 pounds, the only way to take down Gronkowski, listed at 265, is to cut out his legs from under him. Turn on any NFL game and you can see defensive backs using the tactic.
"Usually they're smaller, and for them to successfully get us down they have to hit us low, because usually if they hit us high we outweigh them and it works out in our favor," Patriots tight end D.J. Williams said. "You feel real bad for them. We're coming full speed, and if they try to position themselves to not get an illegal hit, they sometimes put themselves in a position to take a massive blow and get hurt or even concussed themselves. It's just a tough thing that's going on right now."
Williams, who has taken shots to his knee "all the time" throughout his college and NFL career, said Gronkowski's hit was just an unfortunate part of a violent game.
"I feel like this wasn't a big deal until they made something out of it," Williams said. "We all play this game, we understand the risks. We're at a point now in our career that you know, 'All right, the ball is coming, I'm going to take a shot.' "
Cantu, who recently authored a yet-to-be published paper entitled, "Why Football Helmets Must Remain on Football Players," believes that the NFL should simply penalize any hit in which a defender leads with his head.
"If they had used their arms and hit his legs and wrapped him up and taken him down, this injury wouldn't have happened," Cantu said of the play involving Ward and Gronkowski. "My hope someday is we'll be able to see all hits in which the helmet hits first made illegal. That's the evolution of trying to reduce the chances of concussions."
HERE'S THE SITUATION
Replay review process may follow NHL’s lead
The NHL has hardly been a professional sports league to emulate over the last decade, with supreme financial inequities between the top and bottom teams and two work stoppages in the last nine years that cost the league 1½ seasons.
But one area that the NHL does right is in regard to instant replay, and the NFL reportedly is seeking the NHL's advice.
Commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed Wednesday at the NFL's fall meeting that the league is considering a proposal that would take instant replay duties out of the hands of game officials and instead be done by league officials at a centralized location, similar to what the NHL has done since the 2003-04 season.
According to the Toronto Sun, the NFL has been in contact with the NHL for about a month, and an NFL representative spent an entire evening in the NHL's "Situation Room" in Toronto on Nov. 30 to see how the league operates its replay system.
"We've studied this and thought about this for a long time. This isn't a new idea," Goodell said Wednesday. "It is something we discussed with ownership [Wednesday] and the committee will come back with a report, and we will possibly make an adjustment from there."
Frankly, this move is long overdue. Instant replay is important, but the process is often bogged down by slow-moving officials — referee Jeff Triplette spent 5 minutes, 13 seconds last week reviewing a play in the Bengals-Colts game, and still made the wrong call to award BenJarvus Green-Ellis a touchdown. Having a centralized system could speed up the process — questionable plays could immediately be flagged by the league office, and a decision could easily be made in 90 seconds or less — and would take human emotion out of the replay system. Far too often we've seen officials rule in favor of the home team, or hide behind the "indisputable evidence" criteria to avoid having to change a crucial call.
"Consistency is important, and by bringing it into the league office on Sundays and actually having one person making that decision, you can make an argument for consistency," Goodell said. "This is something we've evaluated. We just think technology may be in place where this might be a good move for us."
However, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a member of the competition committee, said Friday that he doesn't see a replay overhaul coming any time soon.
"The competition committee was against it," he said. "You want the guy on the field to be in charge of the game. What if we have three [reviews] at once? Who is going to make that decision? You're defeating your purpose."
Patriots must address depth at tight end
Rob Gronkowski will hopefully recover 100 percent from his knee injury and return to form next season, but his injury last week hammered home an important point; the Patriots desperately need to find one, perhaps two new tight ends for next season.
Gronkowski hasn't been able to stay healthy, and the sudden departure of Aaron Hernandez certainly plays into that as well. The top two options on the team are blocking tight ends — Michael Hoomanawanui (35 catches, three touchdowns in four NFL seasons) and journeyman Matthew Mulligan. D.J. Williams, signed after Gronkowski's injury, is more of an athletic, pass-catching tight end, and the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal, giving them the option of bringing him to training camp. But he has also bounced between Green Bay, Jacksonville, and New England in three NFL seasons and it's doubtful he will make a big impact with the Patriots.
A few intriguing names could be available in free agency. Green Bay's Jermichael Finley has been a dynamic receiver, but his future is in doubt after undergoing spinal-cord surgery in November. Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, Washington's Fred Davis, and the Giants' Brandon Myers are also set to hit free agency, as is Miami's Dustin Keller, although he, too, is coming off a devastating knee injury. The most intriguing name could be Tony Gonzalez, who appears set to retire after this season but perhaps could be lured by Bill Belichick and the promise of an elusive championship ring.
The NFL draft could have some promising prospects, if certain underclassmen decide to leave school early. Texas Tech junior Jace Amaro, who stands 6-5 and 260 pounds, will likely be a first-round pick after catching 98 balls for 1,240 yards and seven touchdowns this year.
Washington junior Austin Sefarian-Jenkins is also another first-round prospect, although he caught only 33 passes for 413 yards this year, and has a DUI arrest on his record. UNC junior Eric Ebron fits more in the Hernandez mold at 6-4, 245, and was a speed mismatch this year with 55 catches for 895 yards and three touchdowns. Florida State's Nick O'Leary (6-3, 238, and the grandson of Jack Nicklaus) and South Carolina's Rory Anderson (6-5, 242) are middle-round prospects who also fit the Hernandez mold.
Costs really add up on reserved-injured list
It's no secret that the Patriots have suffered several key injuries this year. But it's not just injuries — it's injuries to impact players.
The Patriots currently have the second-highest percentage of salary cap dollars on their reserved/injured list of all 32 teams — a total of $27.06 million out of their adjusted salary cap of $129.66 million, or 20.9 percent of their cap. Included are Vince Wilfork ($10.6 million cap number), Jerod Mayo ($5.9 million), Sebastian Vollmer ($3 million), Rob Gronkowski ($2.75 million), Tommy Kelly ($2 million), and Adrian Wilson ($1.33 million).
Only the Rams have a higher percentage of their cap on IR — 28.7 percent ($35.24 million of $122.67 million). Cortland Finnegan ($15 million), Sam Bradford ($12.595 million), and Scott Wells ($6.5 million) account for almost all of it.
The NFL is anticipating a salary cap of approximately $126 million-$127 million for next year, an increase of about 3 percent. Teams may also carry over any unused salary cap space from year-to-year, and the Patriots currently have about $5 million in reserve.
Kevin Turner’s ambitious cause
Former fullback Kevin Turner, who played three seasons for the Patriots after being selected in the third round in 1992, has organized an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with a goal of raising $100,000 for the Kevin Turner Foundation, which helps raise funding and awareness for ALS and concussion research.
Turner, 44, was diagnosed with ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's Disease," in 2010. "Climb for Kevin" leaves the United States on March 18 and entails a seven-day climb up and down the 19,341-foot mountain in Tanzania, as well as an optional three-day safari.
Those wishing to support the campaign can donate at ClimbForKevin.com.
Concussion case not closed
Last week we wrote about five former Kansas City Chiefs who have sued the team for what they consider negligent treatment of head injuries and concussions between 1987-1993.
And despite the NFL's $765 million settlement with thousands of retired players in a class-action suit, the legal wars aren't over. Former Steelers and Redskins return man Antwaan Randle El filed suit against the NFL in a Manhattan federal court last week, alleging that the NFL "has done everything in its power to hide the issue and mislead players" concerning the risks of playing football and concussions.
The $765 million settlement breaks down to about $170,000 per player, which could be considered low when factoring in debilitating conditions and rising medical costs. If more players continue to bring suit against the NFL and file grievances against the $765 million judgment, it could force the NFL back to the bargaining table.
"All these other lawsuits that are popping up, what they're saying is, 'This settlement is not going to fairly compensate my client. We think we can get a better deal,' " Timothy Epstein, a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, told Village Voice last week. "If enough of those get filed, it could convince the judge to say, 'This is not good enough; you have to try again.' "
Quote of the week
"What I'm trying to do is be as honest as I can. And I don't normally do that."
— Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, in explaining his rationale to bench Robert Griffin III and confirming what we all suspected: NFL coaches don't like telling the truth.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.