What’s Good for the Players is Good for the Game

Author

JC Tretter

Up until training camp, the 2020 offseason was entirely virtual as a result of the pandemic. The narrative is that COVID “forced” us to adjust; but the reality is that our leadership made prudent decisions based on the health and safety of everyone in our business.

Our decision-making was rooted in science, expert medical advice and the data available to us at the time. As we learned more, we adjusted accordingly. The same iterative process got us through the regular season. And as the season went on, we continued to adapt our protocols not based on what was best for the game of football, but what was best for the people of football.

This same logic must be applied to the 2021 season -- and beyond -- with the data and science informing how we protect the players long-term. The pandemic is not over, and despite increasing vaccination rates, the number of infections are on the rise. Even the most aggressive estimates put herd immunity in the U.S. at some time in early August.

The good news for our sport is that while the NFL season looked and felt noticeably different from previous years, we learned that the game of football did not suffer at the expense of protecting its players more than ever before. Our process is to follow the science on what is safest for our guys, and many of the changes this past year – like no in-person offseason workouts/practices, the extended acclimation period before training camp and no preseason games – gave us a year of data that demonstrates maintaining some of these changes long-term is in the best interest of the game.

Reviewing what went well and what could be improved at the end of each NFL season is not a new practice - every year, a third party tracks and reviews league-wide injury data. Given the unique nature of this past season, the NFLPA was especially interested in their findings on player safety. Here are some of their most impactful discoveries:


23% Decrease In Missed Time Injuries

The quickest way for a player to lose his job is to miss time. So we are highly motivated to reduce the risk of injuries that result in players being unable to participate in practices and/or games. Over the past five years, the average number of missed time injuries annually for all NFL teams was 3,524. For the 2020 season, the number of missed time injuries decreased to 2,716.

To get a better understanding of where we saw the greatest reductions in missed time injuries, we need to take a deeper look at the three phases of our football season: OTAs, training camp and the regular season. The regular season’s missed time injury rate fell within the normal range of the previous five years -- that makes sense considering there weren’t substantive changes to our in-season practice and game day schedules. Thanks to the new acclimation period, however, training camp saw its lowest injury rate in that same time frame. And, with no in-person practices in April, May, or June of last year, our players were able to prepare for the football season while avoiding unnecessary injuries.


30% Reduction in Concussions

Concussions are certainly one of the most troubling injuries in our sport. During the last five NFL seasons, an average of 247 concussions were reported per year. In 2020, 172 concussions were reported. Without preseason games -- games that typically result in an average of 46 concussions per year -- we were able to avoid those injuries entirely. The training camp ramp-up took our concussions per training camp practice from 1 in every 17 practices in 2019 to 1 concussion in every 20 practices in 2020. In my opinion, finding ways to reduce concussions should be a top priority for the NFL. If we’ve identified strategies for reducing concussions by 30% and it doesn’t involve modifying game rules, it would be reckless NOT to implement those changes.


All Categories of Lower Extremity Strains Fall Within Five-Year Average

The NFLPA was concerned that, because players didn’t have the regular access to gyms and training facilities they’d normally use to prepare for training camp, they would be at a higher risk of injuries during camp. The NFLPA followed the Joint COVID Taskforce’s recommendation for a longer acclimation period, and we successfully fought the NFL to agree to the safer ramp-up schedule. Our main focus was around avoiding spikes in injuries early in training camp and the regular season. While nearly all injuries were lower or flat this year compared to 2019, total lower extremity injuries (LEX strains) from the preseason and regular season were up (from 634 to 659). Not all LEX strains increased during the 2020 season -- hamstring and quad strains were down. The increase in total LEX strains was driven by an increase in calf and adductor strains, but all individual categories of LEX strains, including calf and adductor, were consistent with the five-year average.

I’m not satisfied with these numbers --preventing LEX strains is still an area we can easily improve. With proper design and adherence to the acclimation schedule, and controls on practice duration and intensity, we are confident that LEX injuries can be mitigated and significantly decreased.


ACL Tears Fall Within Five-Year Average

I know there was a particular interest in the number of ACL tears that occurred this year. Yes, we did see a spike in ACL tears around Week 2 of the season. However, we have seen similar one-week spikes in previous years. When we look at the data from the entire year, we see that ACL tears were not higher compared to previous seasons. In fact, the total number of ACL tears were on the lower end of the five-year average.


45% Decrease in Heat-Related Illness

Another concern of the committee of medical experts, trainers, and strength coaches was to better avoid heat-related illness, especially with the potential impacts of masks and Oakley face shields. Compared to previous years, the 2020 training camp acclimation period resulted in a 45% decrease in these dangerous health issues.

Overall, the injury data shows the decisions we made for the health and safety of our players made a positive impact, and that’s why the NFLPA believes we should continue to build on the changes introduced in the 2020 season. My number one priority will always be working to make our jobs safer.

Time and time again, when we as a union push for a safer work environment, members of the of NFL community will incorrectly warn that any change will negatively impact the product. The positive thing about this year was that we proved we can prioritize player health and safety while still putting out a top-notch product for our fans. Let’s visit a few statistics on the state of our game in this unique season.


Performance:

  • I previously shared that points were up, penalties were down and missed tackles were down
  • There were 12,692 points scored this season (Most in NFL history)
  • The average points scored per game was at 49.6 (Highest since 1970)


Competitiveness/Drama:

  • 11-point average margin of victory (smallest since 2006)
  • 69.9% (179 out of 256) games were within one score (8 points) in the fourth quarter. (Second-most amount of games in NFL history)
  • 43 games had a team comeback from 10 points down to win. (Tied for the most in NFL history)


Parity:

  • 18 teams were in playoff contention the final week of the season (Most since 2006)
  • 5 new division winners this season
  • 7 new playoff teams


These are not just minor improvements from season-over-season. These metrics are better than they have been in over a decade and, in some cases, the entire history of the NFL. Injuries were down. Scoring was up. There was more drama and parity than arguably ever before.

The changes implemented as a result of the COVID-19 crisis proved that we can make the game safer for our players and the product will not suffer. Despite the evidence in front of us, we still hear people within the football community pedaling the same tired excuses and dragging their feet on change. It makes me wonder if their “concern for the product” is simply a veiled fear of change -- or worse, a fear of losing control. The facts support prioritizing the protection of the players, and the NFLPA will not be deterred by talking points, threats and hypotheticals.