All right, perhaps that’s a mild exaggeration. But there is uncertainty ahead when it comes to the country’s most popular game. With the issue of concussions regularly making headlines, and the fact that players are getting bigger, stronger and faster, it’s only logical that adjustments will be made to address the evolving nature of the sport.
But while purists bemoan what they perceive to be the slow emasculation of a brutal game, while others wonder if enough is being done to tone down the violence, the consensus seems to be that changes will be incremental, and not too radical.
“A lot of change has already occurred over the past decade, which I think has been positive,” explained Randy Cross, an analyst for CBS Sports who played 13 seasons in the NFL, all with the San Francisco 49ers. “For instance, it appears that teaching has taken the head shot out of the game, which will help a lot of guys out.”
Concussions have become the dominant buzzword leading to alterations in how the game is played. There is probably no better example of the type of incident the NFL is crusading to eliminate than last December’s helmet-to-helmet blow by Pittsburgh’s James Harrison on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy. Harrison was suspended one game for the play, which resulted in a concussion for McCoy.
That led to a whole brouhaha about how the Browns handled McCoy’s injury. The diagnosing of concussions is one area of football that many feel will see marked improvement in the coming years.
“One of the most significant breakthroughs will be identifying the biological markers that enable doctors and trainers to see how bad a concussion is,” Cross said.
Other changes fans may notice is in the area of equipment. “I started playing in 1964,” said Ed Croson, head coach of Chaminade Prep in West Hills, Ca. “When I was a little kid, I played on a team that still had one leather helmet, with a facemask screwed onto it.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Cross agreed that equipment will continue to be examined, scrutinized and improved, and what players wear will have a profound impact on how they play the game.
“I think significant strides will come in the science side and the engineering and technical side when it comes to helmets and the mandatory use of dual-arch mouthpieces,” Cross explained. “With MMA and boxing, those are mandatory. Football is probably every bit as violent, but they never considered it because of the union.
“I think changes in the helmet, mouthpiece, chip strap, that’s all going to be positive for players.”
At the high school and college levels, Croson said, the game has already changed in terms of style — less smashmouth — and that results in fewer direct hits. “Our running backs try to avoid hits,” he said. “That era of football is gone now. It’s all spread. It’s all like fast-break basketball.”
Like all coaches, teaching is a major part of the job for Mike Leach, in his first season as head coach at Washington State. He believes the teaching of technique will continue to evolve to meet changing times.
“At all levels, players need to be taught how to tackle,” he said. “They need to be taught how to tackle in the NFL. … It’s a constant series of corrections and refinements.”
Jamie Dukes, who played 10 seasons in the NFL with the Falcons, Packers and Cardinals, believes the league is “taking every precaution” and “I don’t see many more changes coming.” He cited as an example of how the game has already changed the moving up of the ball on kickoffs, which results in more touchbacks, fewer returns and therefore fewer violent collisions.
“The league is trying to do all it can,” Dukes said. “Guys who are not adhering to the changes are getting fined.”
In fact, while Dukes believes concussions are a serious problem in an increasingly brutal sport, it isn’t as widespread as the public might perceive it to be. Dukes said obesity is a more pressing issue, and the changes he would like to see in the game of football involve teaching players how to live healthier lives during their playing careers and after. He started the Billion Pound Blitz Initiative, an effort to improve the lifestyles of athletes.
“I had seven teammates who I have played with die before they were 47,” he said, citing issues like diabetes and heart disease as by-products of the obesity that develops when athletes whose playing weight is 300 to 400 pounds suddenly stop playing and working out.
Perhaps the biggest change of all in protecting players will come in the area of awareness. At the pro and college levels, trainers react more quickly than ever to signs of concussions. High schools have been slower to adapt, primarily because of funds.
“There’s a physician at every game in California,” Croson said. “They haven’t mandated trainers for schools because a lot of the school districts couldn’t afford that. We can because we’re a private school. Our school chooses to take that care. I think it’s a good idea for any school.”
Cross agreed that player safety is the most noticeable change in the game, and he expects that trend to continue.
“I think if you ask the average fan how much the game has changed in the past 10 years, he would say a lot,” Cross explained. “But he would be hard-pressed to say how. But if you look at the safety standpoint, it has changed dramatically.”
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44.
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