Preseason concussions down in practice from '18, up in games

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The number of concussions suffered by NFL players during training camp and preseason games remained flat this year from last, although there was a significant drop in the number of concussions suffered during preseason practices this year, according to data given to team owners at the Fall League Meeting here Tuesday. Driving the number of practice concussions down has been a focus for the league in the last few seasons. The league's health and safety executives said the drop from 45 preseason practice concussions in 2018 to 30 this preseason was undoubtedly a reflection of the league's decision to ban four drills -- including the Oklahoma drill -- that often involve contact to the helmet, and the increased attention paid by coaches and players to safer practice techniques. The league has also banned helmets that perform poorly in safety testing, and all but 13 players league-wide are now wearing the highest-performing helmets available. The other 13 are wearing helmets that are deemed permissible by the league, although they have not been given the highest rating.

Still, the overall number of concussions sustained during the preseason was 79 in 2018 and 2019. That raises the question: Why did the number of concussions sustained in preseason games rise significantly, from 34 in 2018 to 49 in 2019, while practice concussions dropped? The league doesn't know the answer yet, but officials are looking closely at who suffered the concussions during games, paying particular attention to their experience level. According to Jeffrey Miller, the NFL's executive vice president for health and safety initiatives, the numbers indicate that a player who did not make his team's roster in 2019 was twice as likely to suffer a concussion in preseason as a player who did make the roster.

The NFL will want to determine if less experienced players' unfamiliarity with NFL tackling techniques could be contributing to head injuries, particularly as more teams are holding out veteran players from preseason games. Concussions in rookies, for instance, occur with disproportionately greater frequency than they do in veteran players during preseason games over the last five years.

"It's a mixed bag," said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, of the preseason concussion numbers. "We're very pleased practice numbers did go down. I'd say we're guardedly optimistic, but we realize there is a lot more work to be done. Obviously, we'll have to compare and see how the preseason numbers stack up to what happens in the regular season. It's really different players participating in these games. That's one thing that really jumps out of the data."

The new numbers follow a 24 percent decrease in concussions during the entire 2018 preseason and regular season from the previous year. At the end of this season, the NFL hopes to have detailed information about what kinds of hits cause head injuries from a pilot program that has players on four teams wearing mouthguard sensors. The NFL wants to expand that program to include all teams next year.

There was better news on lower leg injuries. The number of ACL injuries dropped from 28 to 16 this preseason and MCL injuries declined from 36 to 29. The NFL had been concerned about leg injuries because their numbers had been flat for about seven years. The league is now tracking what kinds of cleats players wear and player training regimens, and it is doing turf analysis at stadiums. It is also looking at other leg injuries, including those to ankles and hamstrings.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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