After expensive lawsuits by former players over concussions and long-term brain damage brought about by hits, the NFL cracked down on player safety in an effort to protect its players, in particular, the receivers. These rule changes came about after the rules were already tweaked as far as quarterbacks were concerned. After Tom Brady’s 2008 season ending ACL tear during week 1, the NFL passed a rule prohibiting defenders from hitting quarterbacks low. Of course, that combined with the strict rules against blows to a passer’s head make for a small window in which a player may hit the quarterback. Some complain about these rules making the game soft, but if they keep your favorite players protected better from sort- and long-term injury, they can’t be that bad.
As far as receivers are concerned, the NFL passed rules prohibiting helmet-to-helmet contact and blows to defenseless receivers. While the rules are good ones, they make defenders think about how to tackle an opponent instead of just doing it the way they were taught as kids. The most immediate reaction is instead of aiming high for a hit, to just aim low. They do this to not only avoid injury, but to avoid a league fine. Cleveland Browns defender T.J. Ward, who laid the hit that tore Rob Gronkowski’s ACL, sidelining him for the rest of the season, even said this was his primary thought as he went to make the tackle.
“It was a decision I made, and just to make a tackle on a big man. Unfortunately, he got hurt, but if I would have hit him up high, there’s a chance that I would get fined and all that other stuff, so I’m just being safe.” – T.J. Ward
Gronkowski obviously isn’t the only player to fall victim to knee injuries this year, though. In fact, 93 players in the NFL are currently on their team’s IR for knee injuries. Although not all of these players are receivers, the number is still quite high. Some of the notable receivers to suffer knee injuries besides Gronk are Dustin Keller and Reggie Wayne. Some may argue that the players and league would rather see short-term injuries like ACL tears that have no lasting effects, than see players with lasting brain damage and mental problems because of concussions. The number of concussions has decreased dramatically and right now only 21 players are currently listed on the NFL injury report with concussions (IR or otherwise).
The great irony here is that players need protecting from the rule designed to protect them. The rules protecting the heads of players are great and should be kept, but new rules are needed to protect the knees of receivers. Knee damage may not be as long-term or as serious as concussions, but they can shorten and end careers if players aren’t careful.