Keeping Players’ Heads in the Game, Literally.

With the rise in quarterback injuries, the NFL must protect its players.
Keeping Players Heads in the Game, Literally.

On a deceptively beautiful September evening in East Rutherford, New Jersey, millions gathered around their TVs to watch the most anticipated sports debut in recent memory. Within minutes, months of culminated elation rendered into unbelieving distraught. When quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles on his fourth play as a New York Jet, it eerily foreshadowed a brutal season for sport’s most important position.

Nothing compares to the quarterback. No other team sport relies on one figure as much as National Football League (NFL) teams do. Football dynasties have one common tie; from Tom Brady to Patrick Mahomes, they all have the best quarterback on the field.

Last season, backup quarterbacks like Gardner Minshew and Trevor Siemian dominated the NFL spotlight. In fact, a higher number of backup quarterbacks started an NFL game than starting quarterbacks. Furthermore, half of the league’s starters suffered multiple-week injuries, seven of which were season-ending.

2023-24 Quarterback Season-Ending Injuries
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This isn’t a new issue, however. 

In the past, the NFL tried to protect quarterbacks through a notable rise in roughing the passer penalties. Between the years of 2012 and 2021, the NFL saw a 69 percent increase in roughing the passer penalties – a change that has not helped reduce enough injuries.

So, what can the NFL do?

For one, the NFL needs to spend more on player safety. The league generated over $18 billion of revenue in 2022; yet, its largest investment in player safety is less than half a percent of that, at $60 million. 

Advancements in equipment have elevated every sport. One example is Nike’s super shoes worn by Eliud Kipochge, who ran the first sub-2 hour marathon in 2019. 

It is time for a similar revolution to happen to NFL gear.

Additionally, the rise of AI brings the unprecedented ability to process and utilize mass amounts of data. The NFL already implements AI through Amazon Web Services for player safety. 

One invention from this collaboration is the Digital Athlete. The project creates a simulation for every NFL player–and their unique attributes–using data from practices and games. The NFL can then use this to imitate thousands of in-game scenarios to locate causes of injury.

While this is a step forward, the NFL must continue to allocate as many resources as possible toward AI, which can ensure an equilibrium between safety and action.

At the end of the day, the NFL—for better or worse—is an entertainment company. It makes its profit according to how many people support and watch the games. Teams rake in cash because of their star players–especially quarterbacks, who accounted for half of the league’s top ten jersey sales last season. Moreover, New York Jets ticket prices plummeted by nearly 50 percent after future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers endured an injury in Week One.  

At the end of the day, the NFL—for better or worse—is an entertainment company.

Drew Poulton, a junior at Concord Academy spoke to how starting quarterbacks create the most memorable games.

“I think back to Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes going head-to-head in the divisional round with the 13 seconds left and the crazy plays from Mahomes, that’s what you remember,” Poulton said. 

“So, I think when you see a backup quarterback starting, you expect to see less of those memorable moments.”

Thus, keeping star players on the field is essential in providing fans with the best possible product. 

Plus, rampant injuries are a bad look for the NFL.

During the 2022 season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was knocked unconscious after undergoing his second concussion in four days. The NFL community sent prayers to Tagovailoa as he was carted off on a stretcher. 

According to CNN, the up-and-coming star considered retiring due to health concerns. 

“I considered it [retiring] for a time, having sat down with my family, having sat down with my wife and having those kinds of conversations, but it will be hard for me to walk away from this game with how old I am,” Tagovailoa said. 

“It’s my health. It’s my body. I feel like this is what’s best for me and my family. I love the game of football, if I didn’t, I would have quit a long time [ago].”

Following the injury, Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, who played college football and has a P.h.D. in behavioral neuroscience, casted doubts about the NFL’s concussion protocol after predicting that Tagovailoa might suffer from a second concussion.

“This is a disaster. Pray for Tua. Fire the medical staffs and coaches. I predicted this and I hate that I am right. Two concussions in 5 days can kill someone. This can end careers. How are we so stupid in 2022,” Nowinski said on X.

After an investigation, the NFL Players Association fired the neurotrauma consultant responsible for clearing Tagovailoa, citing the “several mistakes” the consultant made. Furthermore, the NFL agreed to alter their concussion protocol to include ‘gross motor instability.’

Despite the changes in concussion protocol, diehard fans like Poulton also question the game’s safety.

“It does create some [safety] doubts for the game,” Poulton said. 

In December 2022, Tagovailoa entered the concussion protocol for a third time that season. On ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown coverage, former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III insisted that Tagovailoa’s life should come before football.

“When we talk about these head injuries, it’s nothing to play with,” Griffin said. “You’ve got to put the person before the player. I’m more concerned about Tua and his longevity of life than I am about whether he’s going to play on Sunday.”

Kefan Cui, another junior at Concord Academy is shocked that the NFL hasn’t taken stronger action after countless injuries.

“I’m surprised that in terms [sic] of player safety hasn’t been addressed a lot. I don’t think there’s been any official statement from the NFL about what they’re doing to improve player safety,” Cui said. 

“It’s a little bit concerning how these [safety] issues haven’t been addressed yet, especially since football is such a contact sport in its whole…”

Not only is the NFL’s reputation at risk, but its future. When parents see constant injuries on TV, they should be far less inclined to allow their children to play football. 

Though, all of this pales in comparison to what is really at stake: the athletes. NFL players train their whole lives for an opportunity to play in the league, and one injury can dismantle years of hard work. 

A study performed by Harvard Medical School found that nearly all NFL players experience mental health challenges during their careers. Their research concluded that fears of job security and performance were major contributors to these challenges. 

An anonymous player in the study said, “[i]t’s your final exam every week.” 

[I]t’s your final exam every week

— Anonymous NFL player

NFL teams, with limited roster spots, can not afford to keep injured players. So, injuries increase a player’s chance of losing their job, which can in turn lower their mental health.

Injuries are not only tough on athletes mentally, but also financially. NFL players, who make great sacrifices for a shot on a roster, have an average career of a mere 3.3 years. 

After factoring in the cost of moving from city to city, traveling to camps, supporting a family, and taking care of their own bodies, NFL players are left with a fraction of the money that you see in headlines. Especially, if they have to pay for significant medical procedures as a result of injuries that they suffered while playing football. 

This responsibility does not solely rely on the NFL. Individual franchises should use this season as a learning experience. A greater emphasis must be placed on teaching quarterbacks how to avoid injury. Instead of attempting to break extra tackles, quarterbacks should slide and end the play. 

Teams should also prioritize their offensive line, the quarterback’s only protection from the defense. Per Pro Football Focus, only one quarterback manning behind a top-five offensive line suffered a multiple-week injury.

Moreover, every team would be ignorant not to invest in sport’s second most important position: backup quarterback. Having a capable backup quarterback is pivotal to ensuring that a team can still have a productive season in the wake of an injury to the starter. 

Every team would be ignorant not to invest in sport’s second most important position: backup quarterback.

For example, this season, after Rodgers went down with an injury, Jets backup quarterback Zach Wilson ranked 32nd in the league in passer rating and subsequently had a record of 4-7 as the starter. On the contrary, Browns backup quarterback Joe Flacco, ranked 19th in passer rating, had a 4-1 record, leading the Browns to the playoffs.

This comes with the Browns and Jets having comparable rosters. Actually, the Jets defense allowed fewer points last season than the Browns did.

And, backup quarterbacks can develop into talented players themselves. Even Tom Brady–widely regarded as the greatest football player of all time–started as the backup to quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Only after Bledsoe sustained a leg injury in Week Two of the 2001 season did Brady first make his appearance with the New England Patriots. Brady and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl that same year. 

Injuries will always be an unfortunate reality of sports and teams need to prepare the next man up.

The NFL has billions of eyes to scrutinize it as the most profitable sports league in the world. Another season as violent as the last needs to be avoided. So NFL, what is the next move?

Editor’s Note: Drew Michaeli is a junior at Concord Academy in Concord, Mass. He is also the brother of Co-Editor-in-Chief Evan Michaeli ’24.  

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