Media Briefing Transcript: Fall League Meeting, Oct. 26, 2021

The NFL hosted a media briefing on October 26, 2021 following the fall league meeting.

SPEAKERS:

  • Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President overseeing Player Health & Safety
  • Dr. Allen Sills, NFL Chief Medical Officer
  • Troy Vincent, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations

TRANSCRIPT:

Troy Vincent: How's everybody doing? I'll begin with what I briefed membership on today as it pertains to football and the competitive aspect of the game after seven weeks of play. It really speaks for itself. As far as my opening comments, the clubs were reminded that in training camp, that the league was entering the new season after concluding the most prolific offensive season in NFL history. How do we build off that and get better?

In summary, from a competitive aspect, games are exciting and unpredictable each week. We have had 24 games decided on a game-winning score in the final minute of regulation or in OT, the most at this point in NFL history. Sixty-three percent of our games through seven weeks of play have been within one score, eight points, in the fourth quarter. That's as competitive as it gets. We have had 11 overtime games, the third-most at this point since overtime was instituted in 1974. We had at least one overtime game in each of the first six weeks, only the second time that has happened. And then comebacks, no team is ever out of a game. We have had 29 games won by a team that has trailed in the fourth quarter and 17 games have been won by a team that has trailed by at least 10 points at some point in the game. And then lastly, the emergence of young stars. And here I am, a former defensive back, talking about young QB stars. Sixteen teams have a starting quarterback under the age of 27. Sixty-seven games have featured at least one starting quarterback under the age 25. You talk about a promising future, this is good for the sport. We ended last year with a lot of excitement and that offensive explosion has continued.

A few key data points that were important were shared related to plays, passes, and penalties. That equals points. That's the formula for fandom. 154 plays a game. We like to see it between 153 and 160 and we're seeing that. Our points of emphasis: With regard to offensive holding, we had 331 offensive holding calls, up from 223 at this point in time last year, but better than where we were in 2019. They're there, and we're asking the umpire and the referee, if you see it, you have to call it. It's there. Obviously, we'll continue to work for consistency. Offensive holding is why we see a little uptick from a year ago at this time on penalties overall. We were at about 13.5 penalties, now we are at about 14.

Sportsmanship, taunting, that is something that has been widely talked about. The game is not good without sportsmanship. You have to play the game with a level of respect. I had to do it. Those that came before me had to do it. Again, we are not taking the fun out of the game. We have had 21 penalties called. At this time a year ago, there were five. It just leads to bad outcomes, what we call 'hero ball.' That's what you see when you're watching the game and you're analyzing the game and a guy is making a selfish decision that really puts the team in jeopardy. Those are costly penalties, a field position swing, and they can actually change the outcome of a game. The coach's subcommittee and the competition committee have asked us to keep at it. The coaches have said, 'we're starting to see the players adjust.'

The low block was a one-year-only rule. We don't have anything to compare it to year-over-year. We have had seven called. To put that in context, after 7 weeks of play there have been more than 13,000 plays and we've seen seven called. We will compare the injury data with that particular foul at the end of the season but right now, we just have not seen what we heard as a concern with regard to big man, little man. That's not showing up on tape. We're not seeing that on video. And the teams and the coaches have adapted to that.

The onside kick. That was another one-year-only rule with the special team coaches trying to increase the recovery rate. A year ago at this time were at about 10 percent and we are now at about 12.5 percent and we hope that rate is maintained.

Dr. Allen Sills: Thanks, good afternoon, good to see you all in person again, it's been a while. So, we had a chance, Jeff and I, to update the membership on a number of health and safety related topics. It starts, I guess, with COVID, fairly obviously, and where we are this year. Our testing results have really shown a lot of consistency through the entire regular season. Our overall incidence rate has ranged between about 0.4% and 0.6%, so that's been remarkably consistent. And we've already done nearly 100,000 COVID tests this season. We're averaging a little over 1,200 tests per day, if you look across the league. So, I think that those test results suggest to us that vaccination and our protocols are working and are having the effect that we'd like them to have.

Speaking of vaccination, we're currently at 94.1% of our players that are vaccinated. You know that virtually 100% of our other staff are vaccinated. We're continuing to work with the NFL Players Association on the goal of getting 100% of players vaccinated -- we would love to get to that goal. At this point, when you consider the club as a whole, players plus staff, 30 of our 32 clubs are at 95% or higher vaccination rates. So that is something that we're very proud of. Again, a tremendous amount of credit to the clubs, the medical staff, to the players themselves, the coaching staff, the NFLPA for helping us achieve that.

As a matter of fact, the CDC has been in contact with us about how that was achieved, because they feel like that's a vaccine success story. And so we've been working with the CDC and you'll see them publicizing something that talks about the NFL strategy and getting to that point as a model for other parts of society.

We're still learning a lot, every week we continue to look at our data, just as we did last year, and adjust our protocols. We continue to have regular conversations with the CDC, the FDA, other public health officials, and infectious disease experts around the country. We've played a really big role and I think you've heard us talk about the importance of symptom reporting. We've seen that in some of our case clusters that people who are vaccinated don't often recognize the symptoms of COVID illness because they're different than what we saw last year. So we've really been emphasizing, to borrow a phrase from the TSA, that "if you feel something, say something" because we think it's important for people to speak up and get tested. I do think that, as I mentioned before, we are definitely seeing the impact of vaccines.

We're seeing that impact in the number of cases that we have, we're not seeing the clustering of cases that we saw last year. We're not seeing the uncontrolled spread.

And I think that the data has showed us some really interesting things on that. For example, if you look at the recent cluster in Arizona, we're still doing genetic sequencing on all of our cases and of the first seven cases that showed up in Arizona, five of them were different strains of the virus. So that says that it wasn't spread within the facility, person-to-person that you might think, but rather that was people who are exposed outside the facility. So again, I think we're seeing substantial effect in a beneficial way of the vaccines. Had we had that kind of exposure last year when no one was protected, I think we would have had a very, very different outcome. 

We still don't see any evidence of outdoor, on-field spread of COVID, which I think is important. And definitely we're seeing that vaccinated individuals have milder disease -- shorter duration, fewer symptoms overall. So, those are positive trends.

One last thing we mentioned on COVID is that we are interested in looking further about the role of booster shots, and particularly antibodies and antibody levels. We're about to do a league-wide study, a voluntary study, of Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff who can get antibody levels checked. And our goal with that study is to measure antibody levels now, compare that with data on who was vaccinated at what point, what vaccine they received, whether or not they've had COVID, and then we'll check the antibody levels again in about two months' time -- again, trying to make those associations about how antibody levels may change in this population. We think this will be a really unique study because of the size, because of the population, because of the frequent testing, and so it'll be another way that as the NFL we can really contribute to the public health knowledge on this topic. So, players can participate and get their antibodies checked, but they're not the focus of this study; the study's just with our club staffs.

Switching gears, after COVID we talked a little bit about out preseason injury data; I think all of you were used to us talking about that.

First and foremost, overall injuries in the preseason were down a little bit from our five-year average. But the most striking thing to me was that soft tissue injuries are significantly up, and we've got work to do there. When I say soft tissue, I'm primarily talking about hamstring strains, adductor strains, groin strains -- those were at a five-year high. So, it's a point of attention, it's a call to action for us to intervene on that, and we'll be doing the work of the coming months to present a strategy about that.

So, we've really increased the amount and the quality of the data we collect on those injuries -- we get a lot of data from our clubs, and we've also directed a lot of funds to research that. We recently awarded $4 million for grants of research just on hamstring injuries. So, we'll have a lot more to say about that.

We've also been spending time with other leagues discussing this. Just last week, I guess, I was in London -- we met with the English Premier League, we talked with a lot of their scientists and doctors about how they're approaching hamstring injuries, and so we're really focused on how we can develop an injury prevention program.

I think that where that work is going to take us is really understanding about load and load management, and about ramp-up and how that affects the preseason. So, again, that's going to be a big focus of ours. Overall, numbers of injuries in preseason were down when you look at the aggregate, but the soft tissue injuries are certainly a point of emphasis.

Jeff, I'll turn it over to you to talk about concussion.

Jeff Miller: Allen gets the bad news around the soft tissue injuries; I'll take the good news around concussion. This year we saw a decrease in concussion numbers in preseason, which of course is gratifying. Just to give the numbers against it, taking out 2020, which obviously was anomalous, no preseason games and such, this was the lowest number of preseason concussions we've seen in several years -- 51 across games and practices. By comparison purposes, if you look back to 2019 and '18 we were at 79. So that's a substantial decrease.

There are a number of reasons for it, I'm sure. One, there's one fewer game -- but that obviously doesn't account for that sort of drop-off. We need to spend more time examining that; for us, it's less about the numbers, as always, but more about the 'why'; and so, we'll be examining each one of those 51 concussions with the engineers, with the Players Association and others, and talking about them and seeing if there's further ways that we can decrease that number. Drills, practices, all of that goes into it and the time spent with the coaches and the general managers I think contributes, certainly. But we need a fuller picture of it.

One other element that goes into that, of course, is helmets: you hear me talk about that from time to time. This year, we saw three new helmets introduced into the marketplace; they were the top three performing helmets in our laboratory testing, all from VICIS. We saw the first position-specific helmet; this was something that we anticipated would come at some point. In the case of this position specificity, it relates to linemen.

We know that linemen suffer more impacts and suffer them in a particular place more so than other positions, up on the hairline or the forehead. So, VICIS built a helmet that increased the padding up on the hairline and on the forehead. That's a great marker, something we thought was important. Hopefully we will see more position specificity over time as companies use the data that we provide. Hasn't had tremendous uptake at this point, VICIS doesn't have a significant market share at the NFL level quite yet, but we do see that as encouraging.

This year was a big change in helmets for our player population while we're on that point. As new helmets come on, if you all remember our helmet chart, green is good, yellow is acceptable, red is prohibited. As more helmets come a top of the green, that shifts everything down a bit. So, 18% of our players from last year who had been wearing green, or the better performing helmets, whose helmets were shifted into yellow, or not recommended; permissible, but not recommended. All but 13 of those people, 18% of the players, all but 13 players moved from the yellow to the green performing helmets already this year. Hopefully we get to the rest of those 13, but we consider that a substantial improvement as well in terms of the protection the players are affording themselves. And they deserve a lot of credit for that. This has been great work between us and the Player's Association to accomplish that.

Last point on helmets then we can stop and take some questions. Just yesterday, we awarded three companies who participated in the NFL Helmet Challenge; this was the notion that while helmets continue to evolve towards safety, there is still some revolutionary gains for us to find. Over the last 18 months, we've been running a challenge that three companies were granted awards in yesterday to demonstrate even greater safety advances than the year-to-year changes we've seen. In the case of these three, each one had a double-digit improvement in terms of safety performance over the top performing helmet that we rank.

So again, from a mechanical perspective, there is opportunities for growth. Two of these companies didn't exist 18 months ago. Hopefully there will continue to be rapid change, we'll see it hopefully on-field relatively soon. Those companies got another million and a half dollars to work on their products and as we continue to evolve towards safety, innovation will be a central element of it, and we'll continue to support companies like that, and work with the players to get adoption of better performing helmets. So, I think that is it on the helmet story, I guess questions for now. Did you want to hit on something Troy?

Vincent: Replay. We have seen after seven weeks of play, and you have probably felt this watching the games, we've seen some progress there in terms of the video assist. We have had 46 coaches' challenges this year. We had 62 at this point a year ago and we had 104 in 2019. As of last night, we had 65 booth/AMGC stoppages. A year ago we had 88 and in 2019 we had 86. The number of coaches' challenges saved by video assist is 52 through seven weeks of play. This is done in collaboration with technology, the referee, New York and the replay official working together. That's the relationship you have to have. You probably notice, going into that last two minutes of the half or the fourth quarter, the coaches are going in with what amounts to four timeouts, which includes the two-minute warning. So, it allows them to strategize. And then lastly, booth and AMGC stoppages saved by video assist is 60. So with everyone working together, it's working and we have seen progress in this particular area.

QUESTION: Troy, my question is for you. Have you guys made a decision on whether or not Deshaun Watson will be eligible to play right away if he is traded within the next week?

Vincent: The commissioner will be available to discuss that a little later on.

QUESTION: Dr. Sills, given the high level of vaccination in the league, and the decreasing community spread in most, if not all the United States, is there any room for discussion of pulling back on any of the protocols before the end of the year given its cost and process?

Dr. Sills: We're always evaluating our protocols. In fact, we have a weekly meeting with all of our experts and just earlier this morning we were talking about some specific aspects of the protocol and whether our data would move us towards changing an aspect or not. So, that's an ongoing discussion driven by the data and what we're seeing. But I think right now I would say we're pleased with where we are but it's not a point where we would want to take our foot off the gas pedal. We certainly still see, as we've seen I mentioned before with the Arizona situation, high rates of community exposure.

So, I think we have to continue to be vigilant, but we'll certainly look at the data and not only think about pulling back but see where the protocol can become more effective. You know, what are the parts of it that really keep us safe, what are the parts that prevent transmission, and how can we adapt as we see new knowledge come out.

QUESTION: This is for Dr. Sills. The packers have had a couple of positive cases in the past couple days, Davante Adams, Joe Barry. Based on your data and information in that situation, where is that headed and how much spread do you expect?

Dr. Sills: You know I always say I had a crystal ball, but I dropped it and broke it before last year. So, hard to predict, but we continue to do what we did last year. We investigate every single case, we do really detailed contact tracing, and we look to identify anyone who might be more at risk for spread. So, I feel like we have a good handle on the situation there of understanding what's gone on to date. We're continuing an enhanced mitigation protocol there as you know, so that puts in extra layers of scrutiny and safety and we'll just have to continue to monitor that situation. But, as I've said before, one thing we haven't seen this year, not just specific to Green Bay but overall, when we've seen these case clusters, they have been combined largely to people who spend a lot of time together, which is not a great shock when you think about how covid is transmitted. But we've not seen sort of that uncontained, uncontrollable, unexplainable spread that we saw last year.

QUESTION: Troy, I wonder if you can give an example of how video assist stops somebody from throwing the challenging flag and basically save time. Does anything stick out in your mind – any specific incident or play from this year where that happened? And if it doesn't, can you just describe exactly how that process works in a game?

Vincent: None, just because you asked me that question. I'm thinking about all the ones that I've seen. Nothing specially jumps out. Having said that, after seven weeks of play, there have been 60 identified plays under the Replay Assistance Rule that could have potentially prevented a booth review/stoppage. To date, there have been 111 plays that have been assisted on or confirmed to prevent a stoppage.

The way it typically works is you have the play going on – catch, no catch, for example. Maybe, did the ground cause a fumble? Baltimore-Cincinnati. You had the catch on the sideline where it might have been a catch, fumble and then, was the player in bounds? Though Coach Harbaugh challenged it, this is one where you can say, 'Hey coach, we're looking at it. It was a catch, fumble. The receiver, the ball hit him while he was out of bounds and came back in, the defender also touched the ball.' That communication on the sideline, Walt (Anderson), Perry (Fewell) and Wayne (Mackie), we're looking at that. We just want to communicate with the coach, to tell him we saw it, more than likely the ruling on the field is going to stand. So, that's kind of the way it would play out, especially going into a break and we're actually looking at all the video coming in.

QUESTION: So basically, in that particular case, Harbaugh would have been free to challenge, but your people on the field are advising him, 'You're probably not going to win that challenge'?

Vincent: We try to just communicate because he knows we have time because we're in a break and it was pretty clear the ruling on the field was going to stand. The player was out of bounds when he touched the ball.

QUESTION: So, in other words, he would have thrown the challenge flag without that communication?

Vincent: That's correct, that's a really good example.

QUESTION: You spoke earlier in the year about the differences you're seeing in the duration, the severity versus vaccinated, unvaccinated. Has that continued along those trend lines and has anything that you have learned about that, could it lead to adjustments in protocols, quarantine and things like that?

Dr. Sills: It has persisted and that's the very point we were talking about this morning, I referenced this morning. As you know, vaccinated individuals, they can test out of quarantine in less than 10 days if they have two negative test back-to-back. Again, that's not something we would have seen last year, so it speaks to the fact – not everyone – but many people do have shorter duration of illness. Again, we are definitely seeing less severe symptoms and fewer symptoms overall. So, I would say that has persisted ever since we started and that's going to continue to be what we see in vaccinated individuals. It's just a very different disease.

QUESTION: Do you see any further evolution of the protocols or are you pleased where they are now?

Dr. Sills: As I said a minute ago, we're always looking at our protocols and I expect they'll evolve and change as we learn more, as we know more, but it'll be driven by the data, what we're seeing and of course those on-going conversations with those public health experts. As we sit here in October, I wouldn't at all be surprised if our protocols evolved between now and the end of the season, the same as they did last year, but it be in response into what the data is showing us.

QUESTION: Dr. Sills, following up on that, is there an expectation that booster shots will be required and what that would look like on when one was vaccinated for example?

Dr. Sills: As you know, we haven't mandated vaccines for players at all, so I don't see a mandate coming with regard to vaccinations to player or boosters. We're certainly motoring the conversation and the scientific recommendation around booster very carefully. As you know, that' s an area of really active discussion among health care professionals. Some of our coaches and staff and potentially some of our players have taken already taken a booster and I think we'll continue to do so. We'll continue that conversation. The study I mentioned around antibodies will help inform that, but we're not in a place today where we're going to be changing our protocol in regard to booster status.

QUESTION: As it related to the replay challenges and those quantitative numbers that you have, how you access officiating and the level it's been at this year? I know there have been a couple long challenges or reviews, I remember one in Philly between the Bucs a couple of weeks ago that seemed to take six minutes, how do you balance it takes to get the call right versus the need to get the game done in three-ish hours?

Vincent: We have to get the call right. We've had about five that we have extended a little bit longer, but the key is with Walt, Perry and Wayne, there's an appreciation for getting it right. Sometimes in those three to five instances where they might have taken a little bit longer in getting it right, it's not about the time. Of course, we want to be efficient, but the goal is to get it right. We're always talking about consistency, but this is our mechanics internally – working with the replay assistants in the stadium, the referee and our mechanics internally. It's always about efficiency, but we have the technology to get it right.

QUESTION: Back to the soft tissue injuries. I know it's early, but what is your working theory about why they would be up so significantly?

Dr. Sills: We've done some work on that, Judy, and there's more to do, but we think it's more about load, load management and intensity of load – how many yards per minute and yards per session people were doing. I think this year's training camp still looked very different. It wasn't back to where it was in 2018, 2019, certainly was not where it was in 2020, so we just need to look at that data and look at it very carefully. When we talk about the data, we're not just looking at how many injuries, we're looking at the load as measured by the tracking devices, the GPS tracking devices that players wear. We're looking at video. We have our bioengineers looking at the pose, what was the stance of the player, was contact involved? There's a lot to unpack there and that's why we're going to have more to say about this as we approach the combine.

My comments are reflected around that we've seen these injuries persist for a while and this year they were particularly noteworthy and with the same kind of data-driven approach that we did with concussions. If you remember in back 2018, we said, 'We want to attack that number and we want to do it by putting in place a reduction strategy that comes out of our data.' We'll take that same approach to this set of injuries and see if we can't have a similar impact.

QUESTION: Two former of the employees of the Washington Football Team handed in a letter this afternoon to the owners asking that the results of the Wilkinson Investigation be opened up. Number one, have the owners received the letters and number two, has the league changed its stance?

Miller: I think Brian (McCarthy) mentioned a moment ago, the commissioner will be available later today or tomorrow, depending on how the meeting goes, I'm sure he'll answer questions on the Washington Football Team.

QUESTION: Where do things stand with the 2022 Combine and beyond?

Vincent: It will be in Indianapolis and as much back to the normal as it can be. You will likely see all of 300-plus athletes arriving back. There has been a focus on the experience for the athlete. We have to do things differently. The experience is not always pleasurable for the athlete. What Dr. Sills and his team did a year ago with telehealth and that process of evaluating and accessing the athlete was positive, but then there are some things that we can do better, clubs can do better, for a better prospect experience. We can do better in that particular area and we will. This year, we will be back in Indy. The year after, Peter O'Reilly and Dawn Aponte reported this to club membership, Dallas, Indianapolis and Los Angeles will be bidding on hosting in 2023 and beyond.