As the NFL's analysis of on-field injury mechanisms and trends produces more actionable data, the league evaluates and changes rules in an effort to make the game safer and more entertaining.
Eliminating the wedge block and prohibiting the blindside block are two recent examples of changes aimed at reducing the risk of injuries during play. At the 2019 annual league meeting in March, NFL clubs voted to eliminate those tactics to try to better protect defenseless players and improve player safety during the kickoff play.
The NFL Competition Committee, in conjunction with clubs, approved the changes following several meetings to study film and discuss player safety with physicians, safety experts and advocates—including the NFL medical committees and the NFL Players Association.
Using Data to Improve the Game
The process for modifying or adopting rules and regulations is systematic and consensus-oriented.
At the end of every season, the NFL Competition Committee convenes to review all competitive aspects of the game, including playing rules, roster regulations, technology, game-day operations and player safety.
Committee members also review the season's injury data – compiled and analyzed by IQVIA, an independent third-party company providing epidemiological analysis – to guide changes to the rules of the game and how practices are conducted.
Additionally, the Competition Committee considers video review data compiled by leading biomechanical engineers to better understand behavior that could lead to injuries on the field.
The Competition Committee then prepares recommendations on rules changes rooted in those various data points for NFL clubs to consider at the NFL Annual Meeting each spring.
At the annual meeting, the Competition Committee presents a report of its findings to the 32 clubs, who vote on proposed new rules or rules changes.
New Rules for 2019
In March 2019, NFL clubs voted to prohibit the blindside block, making it a foul if a player initiates a block when his path is toward or parallel to his own end line and makes forcible contact to his opponent with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder.
NFL clubs also made permanent the kickoff rule changes that were first implemented last year.
Before the 2018 season, Dr. Jeff Crandall, Director of the Center for Applied Biomechanics at The University of Virginia and Chairman of the NFL Engineering Committee, led a team to compile this data by analyzing video of all 459 reported concussions sustained in NFL games during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The comprehensive video review demonstrated that the kickoff represented only six percent of plays but 12 percent of concussions. Players had approximately four times the risk of concussion on the kickoff compared to running or passing plays.
The kickoff modification rules address the components that appeared to pose the most risk, like the use of a two-man wedge, while maintaining the integrity of the kickoff, one of the most exciting plays in the game. The rule changes resulted in a 38% decrease in concussions on kickoff plays when compared to the three-year average of reported concussions from 2015-2017.
The Future of the Game
Since 2002, the NFL has made more than 50 rules changes intended to reduce risk for players.
As the NFL collects more data and the experts analyze it, the NFL anticipates that rules changes will continue to play a key role in the league's ongoing mission to try to better protect players from injury – but they are just one component of the league's efforts to move the game forward and improve safety.
"Rules changes and enforcement are] part of it, but it is also education and culture and how we teach the game, how we practice, and how we teach the techniques associated with blocking and tackling,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said [earlier this year.
"[Teaching proper blocking and tackling techniques] isn't just applicable to the NFL and NFL players," said Dr. Sills. "This is safety for football overall and how [to] teach the game from youth all the way through the professional level."