High injury rates among special teams raises concern among the NFL as league prioritizes player safety

Shortly before the NFL’s 2021-2022 season came to an end, league officials announced that the NFL had issued a “significant call to action in response to disproportionately high rates [of injuries] on special teams.” The exact response to this issue has yet to be determined, but considering the history of special teams players suffering from injuries more than other positions, some further rule change is clearly necessary. 

Special teams players are the players who appear on the field during kicking plays and are often made up of punters, kickers, long-snappers, and other players involved in providing coverage and returning the kicks. According to a 2013 study, special teams players are injured at a rate of once per 50 plays, whereas quarterbacks, the least likely players to get injured, get hurt once every 236 plays. 

More recent league studies conducted in 2017 and 2018 showed that “concussions were five times more likely to occur on a kickoff than an offensive or defensive snap, even though 40% of them went for touchbacks in 2017.” While special teams players are typically the most likely to get injured during a game, the rate at which players became injured this past season is alarming. 

In response to this high rate of injuries among special teams players, rule changes and new training requirements are being considered by the NFL. During the NFL’s annual health and safety meeting with reporters just before Super Bowl LVI, the NFL reported that concussions are decreasing in general throughout the league; however, concussions are occurring at a higher rate when special teams players are on the field. Part of the concern here is that this higher rate of concussions is occurring regardless of rule changes that have been implemented to make punts and kickoffs safer.

The league’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, reported that one in six concussions that occurred this season were among special teams players. In addition to this high rate of concussions, Dr. Sills reported that 30% of knee injuries and 29% of other lower body injuries occurred on special teams. It’s important to realize that only about 17% of the players in the entire league make up special teams, so these high injury rates are concerning. 

The Buffalo Bills’ Sports Performance Center has been a key factor in keeping the Bills’ players healthy and safe during this past season. Photo Credit: Arc Building Partners.

Something for the League to consider may be the Buffalo Bills’ impressively healthy season. While football is clearly a dangerous sport that sees players having to take time off to heal throughout the season, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created even more health issues that have required frustrating roster adjustments throughout the season. The Bills, however, did not suffer any significant roster adjustments due to health reasons this season.

UBMD orthopaedic surgeon and team physician for both the Buffalos Sabres and Bills, Dr. Leslie Bisson credits the Bills’ healthy season to being a “team effort to reduce injuries and optimize player availability.” Dr. Bisson elaborated on this by explaining that their approach includes a comprehensive evaluation of the current roster and prospects, individualized and team strength and conditioning strategies to reduce injury risk, practice and game surface and equipment considerations, early and accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment using validated and innovative technologies, and validated return-to-play protocols.”

Just a few years ago, the Bills’ Sports Performance Center was redesigned to optimize health and safety among the players, which ultimately led the Bills to obtain one of the top player facilities in the NFL. The culmination of a strong medical team and world-class training facility are clearly essential in maintaining player safety among NFL players and may be something for the league to take into consideration when evaluating the data surrounding injuries among special teams players.

Maintaining safety among special teams players has proven to be a challenge for the NFL, with the league even considering the complete elimination of kickoffs at one point after the 2018 season. Player protection may require some extreme rule changes to the game as we know it, as there are only so many ways for the rules on kickoffs and punts to be altered. Now that the 2021-2022 season has just come to an end, it should be interesting to see how the NFL goes forward with this player safety concern.

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Co-President of the Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Law Society 2021-2022.

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