Improper footgear also responsible for injuries
KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Last season, the NFL opened up offensive production by enforcing penalties for "illegal contact" five yards past the line of scrimmage on pass plays. The strategy worked in creating a more exciting game.
This fall, the emphasis is on safety. Injuries were up in 2004. Though the NFL isn't sure whether this was an abnormal spike or a trend, the league's competition committee spent endless hours reviewing plays that resulted in injuries.
The final result was the passage of four proposals to better police the game and limit injuries. Defensive linemen will be spared from the peel-back blocks, which are no different than clips near the line of scrimmage. The league broadened the definition of unnecessary roughness, emphasizing the word unnecessary. Kickers and punters will receive quarterback-like "hands-off" treatment to protect them from helmet-to-helmet hits or unnecessary contact when out of the play. In May, the committee will rewrite a proposal to eliminate the "horse-collar" tackles popularized by Cowboys safety Roy Williams.
In addition, for the second consecutive year, the league is finding ways to limit the number of do-over punts and kickoffs because studies have shown some of the most dangerous plays take place under those circumstances.
"I think every three or four years we have to go back and look at the emphasis on safety," competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay said. "Every three or four years, you see something in the tactics. Somebody comes up with the blocking scheme. There may be a defensive tactic that we have to address. I don't think it's just this year. It's something that needs to be emphasized so you don't move backwards, you move forward."
The NFL's research on injuries is expanding. An Iowa professor, Dr. Elliot Pellman, has studied injury trends for years and hadn't discovered anything alarming -- until this season. Though it might take two or three years to find answers, Pellman and others have concluded that footgear is a major issue that needs to be addressed.
Leg and foot injuries have risen over the past few seasons. More and more running backs are suffering from turf-toe problems. Foot injuries for all position players have become a regular part of injury reports. High ankle sprains have become a bigger worry.
"We went back this year and tried to study very carefully the designs of the shoes," McKay said. "We are going through the injury reports trying to match up injuries to shoes. We are trying to see how a shoe matches up to the surface."
Don't expect any quick answers. Trainers work on injuries. Equipment managers work on the shoes. What will probably happen over the next two years is that trainers will become more involved in watching the types of shoes being used by the players and start charting their uses.
Players have access to many companies' state-of-the-art shoe designs, but the players decide which styles they want to wear. A lot of times, players care more about the appearance of the shoe than its effectiveness. For example, some defensive linemen prefer the low cut of a wide receiver's shoe because the shoes look good. Running backs like light shoes for speed and style, when their feet might be better served wearing different shoe.
There are other factors to consider. Should high tops be better than low cuts? What are the right shoes for FieldTurf? Are the length of spikes right for the grass surfaces? Are molded shoes for individuals better than off-the-shelf shoes?
While the league continues to research shoes, the NFL's biggest task is focusing on eliminating injuries that can be controlled.
One unpopular tactic that survived close scrutiny were the cut blocks used by the Denver Broncos. The cut block is one in which an offensive lineman inside of the tackle box dives below the knees of a defender to knock him to the ground. Over the past five years, close to a half-dozen opponents suffered broken legs from low hits like these.
The competition committee studied every block that resulted in an injury and polled players and officials from the NFL Players' Association. The results this offseason might surprise you.
"Those close-line blocking plays from three yards from each side of the ball came up with no recommended changes," McKay said. "We looked at the tapes and didn't see any safety concerns and neither did the players. Players on defense anticipate those blocks that are there."
The cut blocks occur mostly on running plays. As long as they happen in front of the defender, he has a chance to protect himself. Despite the protests and complaints about those blocks, the NFL couldn't document any bad injury trends from 2004, and the escalation of 3-4 defenses makes it important to have some type of quick block to move nose tackles. There was no change.
However, several well-known plays have been eliminated.
• Broncos tackle George Foster didn't make a cut block to break the leg of Bengals defensive tackle Tony Williams. The play was a bootleg opposed to a running play. The play happened in space opposed to being in a crowd near the line of scrimmage. After reviewing those tapes, the Committee determined Foster's block was more fitting as unnecessary roughness. The penalty is 15 yards and a possible fine if there was no penalty.
• Warren Sapp's blindside block on Packers left tackle Chad Clifton in 2002 was legal then, but is considered illegal now. Like Foster's play, Sapp's hit was considered unnecessary. Clifton was away from the play in the open field. His season ended as a result of that block, and starting this year, those types of plays fall into the expansion of the unnecessary-roughness rule.
• Giants punter Jeff Feagles suffered a broken jaw on a block in which he wasn't moving to the ball. If a team tries to take out a kicker, the NFL adjusted the rules so officials can throw a flag and award a 15-yard penalty.
• The peel-back blocks are nasty and resulted in six or seven serious injuries last year. The peel back is one in which an offensive lineman moves outside the three-yard area along the line of scrimmage -- mostly on the defensive side of the ball -- then turns around and takes out the back of the legs of a blind, defenseless defender. To avoid a 15-yard penalty, the blocker must get his shoulder in front of the defender so the defender has a chance to see the block.
"What happens on that play is that the runner can't defend himself when you are jerked down immediately and the legs become a concern," McKay said.
McKay guarantees the play will be eliminated once the May meeting is complete.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.