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Why does the NFLPA Want to Stop Leaping Field Goal Blocks?

McClellin leap

Patriots’ Shea McClellin makes a spectacular leap in Super Bowl LI
photo: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

Sheilla Dingus
March 5, 2015

Last week at the Combine, the NFLPA presented a request for a rule change to the NFL Competition Committee.  As first reported by Mark Maske of the Washington Post, NFLPA President Eric Winston said:

The jumping over on the field goal, I think, is just leading to a really dangerous play for everybody. If you jump over the center, the jumper is in a really bad spot. He can land on his head. I think the guys that are getting jumped over are going to end up getting hurt, with those guys landing on them. So I’ll be very interested to see what they’ll do there. I think something probably needs to be done.

[It’s] just becoming a really, really dangerous play and now especially because everyone’s on the lookout for it, right?  So someone’s ankles are going to get clipped. They’re going to go ass over teakettle, and either someone’s going to get landed on or he’s going to fall on his head. And they’re really bad injuries, too. It’s not like, ‘Oh, he could sprain his ankle.’ Those are neck injuries. Those are bad knee injuries. We expressed that to them, and I hope they follow through on that.

 

While there’s no doubt the leap is an exciting play, there’s equally no doubt that Winston is correct – the maneuver can potentially be one of the most dangerous plays in football.  NFL insider Ian Rapoport commented shortly after the news became public:

It’s really a play that did not sound like the competition committee had been dealing with this much until over the last couple of years, and now the NFLPA so badly, as is clearly the case, wants to eliminate this for safety reasons.  It certainly would seem difficult for NFL teams to go against that. I would not be surprised, with the backing of the NFLPA, that this happens and players are no longer allowed to leap over the center.

 

Yesterday I came across a story by Matt Dolloff of Boston CBS Local. The headline read, “NFLPA Looks To Ban Leaping Over Line After Patriots Have Success With Play.” Dolloff began the article, “The Patriots raised eyebrows during the 2016 season when they busted out the field goal leap, an eye-popping, relatively new trick play that had rarely been attempted by other teams in recent years.” In the article, Dolloff, acknowledged the safety risks in stating, “Winston has a point. Leaping over a player who has his head down has the potential to cause serious injuries. It’s not attempted very often in the first place, and if successful would result in keeping at most three points off the board for the opponent. The play is exciting to watch when it happens, but not necessarily worth the risk of a potential collision causing major injuries to players’ heads, knees, legs, or feet.”

He however, presented a view point that the proposed rule change is directed at the New England Patriots, “It’s just curious that the NFLPA didn’t decide to act on the leaping play until the Patriots were the ones making the headlines for doing it,” further stating, “it’s also a typical NFL move to wait until the Patriots do something well to take action on it.”

While I have great respect for Dolloff as a journalist, on this point I disagree.  At this stage, at least, it’s not an “NFL move,”  but a union move. The leap has been utilized by both the Steelers and the Seahawks, and most recently by the Patriots, as both Dolloff and Maske pointed out.  What wasn’t pointed to quite as clearly is the fact that the leap, once a completely unexpected anomaly is becoming more common.

As a Patriots fan, I’ve enjoyed seeing how the team has utilized the leap over the past two seasons, first with Jamie Collins and most recently with Shea McClellin but never really thought about the safety implications until this week. I decided to consult with sports medicine doctor, Jessica Flynn, who is also a Patriots fan to get her opinion.  The first thing she said to me was that she “jumped almost as high as Jamie Collins did when he had that amazing play,” but she continued:

The NFLPA makes a good case. I’m embarrassed to say that I had never really thought about the dangers of leaping blocked field goal plays. I remember Jamie Collins leaping over the Pats defensive line and the Colts’ long snapper to block a field goal during the 2015 regular season. I thought it was one of the most athletic plays I’ve ever witnessed. Kam Chancellor seems to have it down to a science.

When the NFLPA brought the issue up this week it made me realize that leaping blocked field goal attempts, while great for TV, are in fact dangerous. The player who is leaping to block the kick can get tripped up by the opposing team’s long snapper or linemen, causing him to fall onto his head. He can be kicked by the kicker as he attempts to block the kick. The kicker is at risk of getting hit when in a vulnerable position. The long snapper and lineman are at risk of being hit in the head or arms or fallen upon by the leaping player. If teams start utilizing this play regularly then opposing teams will need to gameplan for it. This could include having the Center raising his head more to block the leaping play. Asking an athlete to use his face and head to block a play clearly would not be safe.

My thoughts were in line with those Dr. Flynn expressed.  While the NFL tends to be quite political at times, what fans must consider is that the bid to eliminate the play comes from the players’ union, not Roger Goodell or the league.  For those who would contend the move as a slight against the Patriots, I would counter that the NFLPA spent a record $3.5 million in legal costs to defend Tom Brady during Deflategate.

The play is simply becoming more common; if it remains legal coaches will have to develop strategies to defend against it, and as Dr. Flynn pointed out, the most logical (and perhaps only) defense would be to have the center raise his head.  Outside of the concussion risk, this would present extreme danger to his neck, and should it be snapped, the player could wind up paralyzed for life.  On the part of players such as McClellin, should a leaping play go wrong, it would not be hard to imagine a career-ending injury resulting.  Often career-ending injuries are what it takes for the NFL to implement a player safety related rule change; case in point, that of Texans’ defensive tackle Cedric Killings, whose career ending injury nearly left him paralyzed in 2007.

poll

Boston CBS Local Poll

I was somewhat dismayed by the results of a poll displayed in Matt Dolloff’s article.  Over 92% of respondents favor keeping the play legal.   It would stand to reason that most people who voted in the poll are Patriots fans, since Dolloff is a Boston writer, and the publication is a Boston CBS affiliate.  Most apparently view the move as another attempt to stymie the Patriots. We need to be better than this and smarter. Any changes the league might implement to increase player safety should be applauded. Since this one comes from the Players’ Association and not the league, I’d contend that there’s no bias in the request; simply an acknowledgement that the play is now used more frequently and by more teams and with the increased use comes amplified danger.

The entertainment value of the play, while high, doesn’t balance the potential devastation of how this could, in an instant, adversely impact a man’s life, health, and career; and concurrently the lives of his family.  As former NFL wife, Cyndy Feasel stated in a recent interview, “the normal person out there, they lose something in their brain that makes them forget that this is a human being. This isn’t a robot in this job; it’s a person. There is not another profession that you use your body as a vehicle, as a means to make your money. It wears and tears on your physical being.”

Dr. Flynn summed things up quite well in stating, “Issues like this rip at the heart of fans who love the game. I hate to see such an amazing play erased from the playbook, but it makes me sick to know that I was celebrating a play that the athletes themselves think is too dangerous.”

Let’s appreciate the freakish athleticism of the players who have implemented the play; hold on to the memories and be glad that no one has been injured.  There are lots of real problems in the NFL to contend with, including, painkiller abuse, player discipline inconsistencies and inconsistencies in dealing with domestic violence, as well as poor treatment of many retired players. We don’t have to invent problems.  Let’s show the league we’re smarter than this.  No more being distracted by shiny objects.  Roger Goodell believes fans “don’t understand,” the issues.  It’s time to prove him wrong.