Is the NFL serious about concussions?

The NFL has caught a lot of flak for its handling of concussions and head injuries to their players over the past few years. There were a number of players that were diagnosed with CTE posthumously, such as Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher.

They have tried to answer the public outcry with various rules changes and policies aimed at reducing the impact to the head and neck. Here is a look at the number of head or neck injuries that showed up on NFL injury reports over the past 10 years:

╒════════╤═══════════════════════╕
│   Year │   # Reported Injuries │
╞════════╪═══════════════════════╡
│   2009 │                   397 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2010 │                   597 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2011 │                   598 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2012 │                   672 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2013 │                   504 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2014 │                   500 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2015 │                   546 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2016 │                   494 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2017 │                   590 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2018 │                   537 │
╘════════╧═══════════════════════╛
╒════════╤═══════════════════════╕
│   Year │   # Reported Injuries │
╞════════╪═══════════════════════╡
│   2009 │                   397 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2010 │                   597 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2011 │                   598 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2012 │                   672 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2013 │                   504 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2014 │                   500 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2015 │                   546 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2016 │                   494 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2017 │                   590 │
├────────┼───────────────────────┤
│   2018 │                   537 │
╘════════╧═══════════════════════╛

The numbers in 2009 were quite low, when the NFL introduced a lot new rules including banning wedge formations on kickoff returns, bunch formations by kickoff coverage units, and banning hits on defenseless receivers.

However, 2009 seems like an outlier, because in subsequent years there is a rise in the amount of head injuries. Then, in 2013 there was a strong emphasis on hits with the crown of the helmet. Since then, we see the numbers stabilize. Full list of safety rules changes here.

So, it seems like the NFL is at least attempting to reduce the number of incidents on the field, but the prevalence of head injuries is still significant. As a result, it seems like the NFL is starting to play it safe when a player does get a head injury. Here is a look at the percentage of times players did not play when listed with a head or neck injury:

╒════════╤══════════════╕
│   Year │ % Held Out   │
╞════════╪══════════════╡
│   2009 │ 61.21%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2010 │ 72.19%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2011 │ 64.55%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2012 │ 61.61%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2013 │ 56.35%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2014 │ 62.40%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2015 │ 61.36%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2016 │ 86.03%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2017 │ 91.19%       │
├────────┼──────────────┤
│   2018 │ 91.25%       │
╘════════╧══════════════╛

Over the past three years, teams have become extremely cautious when it comes to head and neck injuries. Obviously everyone wants less head injuries overall, but I wonder if there are any rule changes that could make enough of an impact to make football “safe.”

All injury data is from Pro Football Reference.


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