Monday Morning MD: How 2016 NFL rules changes will affect safety

At the recent NFL owners meetings, a total of 10 new rules were announced for the 2016 season. The league often touts its health and safety improvements. Four of the new rules were enacted with player welfare in mind; however, did the league go far enough? Four rules changes for safety
  1. All chop blocks are now illegal
In my opinion this is long overdue rule change helps prevent ankle and knee injuries. The old rulebook with some chop blocks being legal was confusing. In addition, whether a player is engaged or not, diving at a player’s planted leg increases the chance of high ankle sprain/fracture, medial collateral ligament (MCL) knee injury and sometimes even anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. As a team physician in 2002, I witnessed Jamal Williams suffer a season ending ankle fracture from a legal chop block and felt that play should have been outlawed for over a decade. Many defenders and coaches have complained about it as well. Thankfully, all forms of the chop block have now been eliminated.
  1. Horse collar tackle expanded to include the area “at the nameplate and above
This is another good rule, but does it go far enough? Horse collar tackles from behind were outlawed over 10 years ago due to the propensity to cause eversion ankle fractures and other knee/leg injuries when a runner is folded back onto his leg. This rule expands the definition of “collar” to the nameplate area and jersey up high. However, tackling by a player’s long hair that often covers the nameplate and collar is still legal. Hair is considered part of the body. Pulling a player to the ground from behind by his dreads is still legal, but that maneuver is just as dangerous as a true horse collar or tackling by grasping the nameplate area. I understand that some will say the player should cut his hair, but my point is that dangerous type of tackle from behind is still legal.
  1. Retroactively designate IR player as “designated to return”
I think this is another great rule change that may not go far enough. A team no longer needs to designate a player for return off injured reserve (IR) with the initial roster move. The club can move players to IR as before and then wait to see which player recovers quickly enough or perhaps becomes more valuable to the team to return. The same eight weeks absence is required as before, but this solves several issues. Teams have sometimes used the old IR/dfr designation on a player that subsequently has a setback in recovery and the player never makes it back. Other times, clubs wish they had saved the spot or used the spot as their roster situation changes as the season progresses. This way all IR players can stay “alive”. Only one can practice as early as six weeks and return to play in eight. This rule is still limited to a one-time use and perhaps the NFL should think about adding more short term IR slots since players are getting paid anyways and many want to return.
  1. Moving the touchback on kickoffs to the 25-yard line
The theory behind the rule is to entice more touchbacks and thus decrease collisions on kickoff returns. In reality, this may have the opposite effect. Strategically, kickers may now add elevation to the kickoff and attempt to pin a returner into a corner of the playing field forcing a return. The unintended consequence may be that we see more kick returns. Thankfully, this is just a one-year trial and the league will re-evaluate before it becomes permanent. The other six rule changes were adopted outside of a safety focus. Players are now ejected for a second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the extra point conversion is permanently at the 15, offensive/defensive play callers can use headsets form the field or the booth, no more 5-yard penalty for illegal touching when out of bounds (just loss of down) and multiple spots of enforcement for double fouls after change of possession are eliminated. The final rule change adds a delay of game penalty for calling a timeout when not allowed. The rule is fine but I feel the NFL should never penalize a team for a medical timeout. If a doctor or athletic trainer feels there is a chance their player has a head injury, they should be allowed to go onto the field and stop play without waiting for the referee or “eye-in-the-sky”. When someone is acting for safety, there should be no risk to being penalized or being charged a timeout. If this rule were in place, the Case Keenum situation with the Rams last year might have been avoided. The league is making an earnest effort to make the game safer. Perhaps it would be even better if the NFL would add a medical person to the competition committee where the vast majority of the rules change proposals come from. Another option is to start a separate player welfare rules committee that would be specifically charged with coming up with new safety rules. This group would be made up of mostly medical personnel. Since almost half the rule changes have to do with health and safety issues, why not involve medical personnel. This new medical rules committee might have been more expeditious in suggesting to outlaw all chop blocks, adding hair as part of the dangerous horse collar tackle or coming up with the next good player safety rule. Follow David on Twitter: @profootballdoc Dr. David Chao is a former NFL head team physician with 17 years of sideline, locker and training room experience. He currently has a successful orthopedic/sports medicine practice in San Diego.
Dr. David Chao
Two decades of NFL team physician experience including two Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. Providing unique perspective to injuries and the NFL sideline/locker room. Successful orthopedic surgery and sports medicine practice in Southern California.

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