How Football's Most Popular Offensive System Leads to More Concussions

Coaches don't want to let the health of their players meddle with the X's and O's

Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty

With 10:57 remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, lined up in the slot and ran off the line of scrimmage into the maw of the Seattle Seahawks defense. Four seconds later, quarterback Tom Brady weaved among pass rushers and unleashed a throw that hit Edelman in the middle of the field for a 21-yard completion. It came at a cost. Kam Chancellor, one of the most fearsome tacklers in the NFL, drove his helmet into Edelman's and knocked him to the ground.

It was a brutal hit. The gasps from the crowd at the University of Phoenix Stadium could be heard on the television broadcast. Cris Collinsworth, the NBC analyst, cut into Al Michaels' call of the play to simply groan. Edelman, meanwhile, got up, and kept running, before eventually falling to the ground.

The hit on Edelman was a textbook example of the dangers of football, all playing out on the spray-painted league shield at midfield. Earlier this year, a study conducted by a researcher from the University of Utah and its School of Medicine, in conjunction with the team physician for the school's football team, showed that the concussion rate of players in West Coast offenses, with their proclivity for a pass-heavy, shorter-route style, was higher than for offenses that adopted Air Coryell or non-West Coast offenses. Additionally, after examining games from the 2012 to 2014 season, the study found that wide receivers, and even more so, defensive backs, suffered more concussions than any other position.

It could, and should, put a spotlight once again on the friction between the sport's inherent problems. Now, there is evidence that even the type of plays called on the field impact's football's most important long-term plight. But, like with Edelman, who remained in the game after gaining clearance to play on, there seems to be a firewall between a player's safety and his playbook.

"I'm a coach and I had a deal with our trainers and doctors," Belichick said the morning after, with the Lombardi Trophy his once again. "They're the medical experts and they don't call plays, and I'm the coach and I don't get involved in the medical part. When they clear players to play, then if we want to play them we play them. The plays we call, I don't have to get approval from them. It's a good setup."

It seems like a clear division and a fruitful one for NFL coaches and play-callers. Don't let the health of their players meddle with the X’s and O’s. But nothing about football is simple anymore and certainly not when it comes to concussions and how they are caused and prevented. Recently, another intriguing case of data came to the forefront.

"In the NFL, players most involved in pass plays appear to be at increased risk for concussions," the study, which ran in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded. Masaru Teramoto, the lead researcher, had set out to see if there was a difference in performance for players before and after they returned from concussions. Instead, he found that there was a statistically significant relationship between a team's style of play and head injuries.

"We just wanted to look at any particular association and if there was a difference between the people's perceptions and what the facts and the data set," he said. "For example, we tended to think that hard-nosed teams, like the run-first offense, these teams may have a higher rate of concussion. This might be something we have in our minds but the results were actually opposite."

It raises an obvious question: What does this mean for the NFL, and football at all levels, going forward? The sport is growing more and more reliant on passing. Quarterbacks are piling up numbers like never before. In 2005, only two quarterbacks passed for more than 4,000 yards. Last year, 12 did. Teams as a whole threw 10.1 percent more often from 2013-2015 than they did over a three-season span 10 years earlier.

And while Teramoto says it's not fair to make a seemingly logical conclusion that more passes means there will be more concussions, he adds an important note: It may not be just passing that is worth watching but the routes that are run.

Here, he means shorter routes and especially crossing routes. They are the kind that can create danger for receivers and also bring defensive players into high-speed, high-impact collisions that hurt them too. Last year, 24 percent of all passes were down the middle of the field. That’s where receivers can lose their sense of surroundings, their ability to use the sidelines as a buffer and leave themselves open to attack.

"It's become such a fad," Mike Martz, a former NFL head coach and Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator, says. "Everybody, it's like it’s the first part of their passing game they put in and everybody runs it. … It's the new thing. Everybody is crossing route crazy."

The most perilous situations occur when the defense is also playing a zone defense. It allows safeties, like Chancellor, to sit back, wait, watch the pass unravel and then fly in for the hit.

Matt Bowen, a defensive back in the NFL for seven years, remembers one example from his playing days, just barely, and it seems not much else from that day. He was playing for the Washington Redskins then and Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck dumped a short pass to a receiver, giving Bowen time to fly in, gain speed and find his target. But what followed is the issue: Bowen, with little thinking of his own, walked back over to the Redskins sideline and his next memory is a quarter and a half later, making another tackle.

Bowen is naturally concerned about the issue. He is a father of four sons, the youngest who is still just nine, and who will not play tackle football until high school when they are physically and emotionally developed to handle it. But Bowen is also a high school defensive backs coach at IC Catholic Prep, a high school outside Chicago. And these issues affect him daily. A 2013 study found that while sub-concussive hits happen more in high school during run plays, the concussions that occur on passing plays are of higher magnitude.

If anything, he is heartened that there are stricter concussion protocols now –  or any at all. It is a sea-change from when when played in high school and in college at Iowa in the 1990's, and he believes a reason why there is a higher rate of concussions being documented and observed.

"When I was in high school there was no concussion protocol," he says. "When I was in college, there was a little one. And when I was a pro there was one but it wasn't like it is now. I don't want to say the league was uneducated –  the league was educated – but it was more that players didn't report them. There was players, myself included, that would fail baseline concussion tests on purpose in the offseason so that when you took the test during the season you could pass it if you had a concussion. That doesn't happen anymore."

That's also a bit of misnomer. Just because concussions are actually being recognized now doesn't mean they didn't occur before or that the safety risks of players is any different. Players don't like to or want to talk about their injuries, even ones involving head trauma, Nate Jackson, a former receiver and tight end, says. But they still happen.

While Jackson may be wary of this study and the information currently available tying concussions to the passing game, he doesn't refute that the sport has changed and is definitively trending one way. And the coaches who have the power to control how games and plays are called have little incentive to change, either.

"Compared to how it used to be, it's not even close," Jackson says. "So they developed this skill set that needs to be used. And the coaches want to use it. The coaches want to fire their guns. These days, coaches don’t become geniuses by four yards and a cloud of dust. If you want to be considered a genius  – and every single coach does. It's about them – it's not about the players, you gotta remember that. These coaches want to go to the Hall of Fame, they want to be the general. Those guys, they want to throw the ball. They want big numbers, they want complicated pass plays and stuff like that. The trend inside the locker room is definitely leaning towards complex passing games. Outside the locker room, as far as the media and television, they like the high scores, man."

So how do you protect them? At some level, you can't. While the NFL has created fines and penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits and targeting, it can't just legislate danger out of the sport. Unlike the turn of the 20th century when football changed because it had gotten too severe, there probably is no wholesale change coming to save it from itself.

Martz believes that it's up to the play-callers and the quarterbacks to provide protection. To not call crossing routes that send receivers into the heart of a Cover-2 defense and beg them to get hit hard, and for quarterbacks to avoid doing the same. Bowen thinks that his defensive backs, with the proper technique, will be safe. Jackson hopes that the league can cut down the play clock, shortening it from the current 40 seconds so players don't get all that time to reload and go full-steam on every play, which increases the risk of the bruising, head-jarring bang – or as he calls it, giving them the chance to pull the slingshot all the way back.

That's the most that can be done.

As for actually changing the ethos of the sport? No study will stop receivers from going full-speed into the seams of the defense or the open gaps.

"On the football field, during a football play, your reason goes out the window," Jackson says. It's fight or flight. You're not rationalizing statistics or evaluations or data or studies or anything like that. You're out and it’s like kill or be killed type of thing… Guys will probably still be out there diving across the middle, doing everything they can to make the play because you make the play America will reward you. If you don't America will fucking shun you. There's a reward system in place for football players and it's a really, really powerful reward system."