Bounty Payments, Concussions, and the NFL

On Friday the NFL announced the findings of its investigation of the “Bounty Rule.”  The NFL stated that players and an assistant coach on the New Orleans Saints maintained an internally financed fund to reward defensive players for forcing turnovers and causing “knockouts” and “cart-offs.”  Subsequently there have been stories that the investigation will eventually lead to the Washington Redskins, where the assistant coach previously worked, and that the punishment for teams that used a “bounty” system will be severe.

This issue is a major concern for the NFL because of lawsuits over concussions suffered by former players.  There are reports that a “bounty” system will make coaches and players more likely to be held liable for the injuries suffered on the football field.  I believe that concussions and severe blows to the head are more likely on passing plays and would like to see the NFL give defenses more of an advantage for stopping the pass.  The number of severe blows to the head per season might decline if NFL teams would run more and pass less.

An alternative is to increase the punishment for defensive players after hard hits.  Some NFL fans are concerned that the game’s appeal will be diminished if more personal fouls are called on defensive players.  Although the NFL says it has stepped up enforcement of these types of fouls, NFL data reveals that the number of penalties called per game peaked in the late 1990s and is down about 8% since then.  There is also no indication that the average severity of penalty infractions have changed in the past decade.  The average yards per penalty last season was 8.4 yards, virtually identical to the average in the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

The NFL has become more dangerous because players are stronger and faster than in earlier eras.  The risk of concussions and head injuries also increased when the NFL changed its rules to “open up the game” by encouraging more passing plays.  The following chart shows that the number of passing plays per game increased after the 1978 rule limiting contact between defensive backs and wide receivers to five yards from the line of scrimmage, and has continued to increase.

NFL rule changes have made elite quarterbacks more valuable and encouraged teams to draft and retain linemen to protect the team’s most valuable player (think “The Blind Side”).  The chart also shows that teams became much better at protecting their quarterback and reduced the rate at which sacks occur by about 25% per passing play, since the early 1970s.  The total number of sacks per game has remained unchanged from the early 1970s, however, because teams pass 25% more often.

A recent study showed that running backs and quarterbacks receive the most severe blows to the head.  Although further analysis of these (and more) data is required, I suspect that quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs are most vulnerable to severe hits when they are in open space.  This is much more likely to occur on a passing play.

The NFL may be able to reduce the probability of head injuries by changing its rules to favor pass defenses.  This would reduce the number of passes and consequently the number of hits that occur when an offensive player is in the open field and more vulnerable.  First, I would allow defensive backs to maintain contact with a receiver beyond five yards.  Second, I would reduce the penalty for pass interference from 15 to 10 yards, unless it was flagrant.  In the case of a flagrant penalty the ball would be spotted at the point of the foul (if it was more than 10 yards downfield).

I would like to see the NFL consider these rule changes before attempting to further penalize defensive players for hits that are too hard and/or too close to the head.  Decisions on the field are made in a split second, and it may be difficult to provide the proper incentives for defenders to adapt on the field.  It is much easier to change the incentives faced by offensive coordinators by making it harder to complete a pass.  This may not be enough of a change to improve safety, but it might be a good first step.

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