Safety of running backs a growing concern

The sensitivity to head injuries continues to increase. The league brought greater awareness to protecting quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, but there will be greater emphasis given to running backs now, as witnessed by special chin straps being donned during the Super Bowl.

INDIANAPOLIS - In his 13 NFL seasons, New England tailback Kevin Faulk, who might be playing in his final game in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday evening, can't recall exactly how many concussions he has suffered. That fact, in and of itself, might be alarming.

But Faulk, who has primarily been used as a third-down receiver for much of his career, is hardly the only back who has lost count. None of the five tailbacks from the Super Bowl who were surveyed by The Sports Xchange could remember, either. Nor could former NFL standout back Eddie George, who was here for the festivities much of the week.

"Oh, a few," George told The Sports Xchange. "Probably more than a few."

Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at length about concussions and the NFL's increased emphasis on safety on Friday, and was asked at least five questions about head injuries during his annual Super Bowl press conference. The timing of the issue was spot-on, given the recent lawsuits, including one by Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, a lengthy piece by The Associated Press on the issue and the perception of many former players that the league simply uses them up.

Interesting is that the NFL does relatively little to protect running backs from head injuries. Running backs within the framework of the line of scrimmage are not considered "defenseless" players, according to the rules. "But," said Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants, "I can't tell you how many times I've been ‘dinged' running the ball off-tackle. I mean, it's not like you can change directions once you're in the hole. You really are about as defenseless as you can get."

League vice president Ray Anderson, among the NFL leaders on safety consciousness and an important liaison to the influential competition committee, said the group continues to look closely at the running back spot. "By definition, they are not so-called ‘defenseless' players. But we're doing more and more (scrutiny) of it all the time," he said.

Anderson made the point that, running backs often times precipitate almost as many injuries as they absorb. Said Anderson: "You have those times when a back lowers his head, and rams into (a defender), and there's an injury as a result. So the back can be the initiator, too. We probably don't have enough information yet on it all, but it is a matter of concern."

Echoing the words of Goodell just moments before, Anderson said: "Believe me, we will not relent."

Notable is that New England tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis will wear a special chin strap, "The Impact Indicator," during Sunday's game. Created by Battle Sports Science of Omaha, Neb., the device measures the impact of taking a shot through the chin to the brain, and employs micro-sensors to help signal to trainers and doctors when a player might require additional attention.

Patriots tailback Danny Woodhead will also wear the special chin strap.

"It gets the information into the hands of the right people, qualified people, who can determine if it's safe for the player to have (absorbed) that impact," said Battle Sports Science CEO Chris Circo. "It provides the kind of information that we really haven't been able to give in the past."

Goodell pointed out that, while the NFL hasn't yet mandated that independent neurological specialists be present on every sideline, the league continues to explore that as an alternative. He also pointed out that during the playoffs the NFL is making video available to team doctors and trainers, so that they can more closely review head-shots during games. There seems to little denying, though, that even with the new rules and increased emphasis on concussions and head trauma in general, running backs are among the most vulnerable players.

"Maybe the most vulnerable," Green-Ellis said.

Several weeks ago, The Sports Xchange noted a goal-line play that occurred in a Pittsburgh-Cleveland game on Dec. 8, when Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall ran a play off-tackle, was well into the hole and couldn't change direction, and took a classic helmet-to-helmet hit from Browns linebacker Scott Fujita. Ironically, it was the same game in which the James Harrison-Colt McCoy hit occurred, for which the Pittsburgh linebacker was subsequently suspended, and the Fujita hit got no attention at all.

Said Mendenhall: "They talk about some (backs) who can change direction on a dime. You'd have to be Superman to avoid some shots in the hole."

Some league running backs intend to make the "defenseless" issue a talking point when players get together with competition committee members here at their annual Scouting Combine meeting sitdown later this month.

"We'll be listening," Anderson said, when told of the players' intentions


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The timing of the issue was spot-on, given the recent lawsuits, including one by Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, a lengthy piece by The Associated Press on the issue and the perception of many former players that the league simply uses them up. Interesting is that the NFL does relatively little to protect running backs from head injuries. Running backs within the framework of the line of scrimmage are not considered \"defenseless\" players, according to the rules. \"But,\" said Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants, \"I can't tell you how many times I've been ‘dinged' running the ball off-tackle. I mean, it's not like you can change directions once you're in the hole. You really are about as defenseless as you can get.\" League vice president Ray Anderson, among the NFL leaders on safety consciousness and an important liaison to the influential competition committee, said the group continues to look closely at the running back spot. \"By definition, they are not so-called ‘defenseless' players. But we're doing more and more (scrutiny) of it all the time,\" he said. Anderson made the point that, running backs often times precipitate almost as many injuries as they absorb. Said Anderson: \"You have those times when a back lowers his head, and rams into (a defender), and there's an injury as a result. So the back can be the initiator, too. 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Patriots tailback Danny Woodhead will also wear the special chin strap. \"It gets the information into the hands of the right people, qualified people, who can determine if it's safe for the player to have (absorbed) that impact,\" said Battle Sports Science CEO Chris Circo. \"It provides the kind of information that we really haven't been able to give in the past.\" Goodell pointed out that, while the NFL hasn't yet mandated that independent neurological specialists be present on every sideline, the league continues to explore that as an alternative. He also pointed out that during the playoffs the NFL is making video available to team doctors and trainers, so that they can more closely review head-shots during games. There seems to little denying, though, that even with the new rules and increased emphasis on concussions and head trauma in general, running backs are among the most vulnerable players. \"Maybe the most vulnerable,\" Green-Ellis said. 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