Game Changer? Football Offensive Linemen Can Avoid Head Injuries By Starting Plays Upright

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As our understanding of head injuries has increased exponentially over the past twenty years or so, it’s become painfully obvious that most hard-hitting contact sports are doing serious damage to players’ brains. There’s no sport more hard-hitting than football, but a new study is offering up a suggestion on how to greatly reduce the head injuries incurred by offensive linemen.

Researchers at Purdue and Stanford Universities say that if offensive linemen start plays standing up, instead of placing their hands on the ground, it would result in at least 40% fewer hits to the head. Such a change wouldn’t alter the game of football all that much, but it could help avoid countless debilitating head injuries and neurological disorders.

No other position experiences as many head injuries as offensive linemen.

“An offensive lineman tends to start off in a three-point stance, which means that one hand remains in contact with the ground until the start of the play, similar to sprinter fashion. The first move is always to come up, and most players tend to lead with their head,” says Eric Nauman, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering and basic medical sciences, in a release.

“If you’re required to be in a two-point stance, meaning standing up with no hands on the ground, then you’re already up a little bit. You’ve already got your hands in a good position and it’s harder, actually, to lead with your head,” he adds.

Paul Auerbach, the Redlich Family Professor Emeritus in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, had actually suggested this change back in 2016. Then, in 2018, he was contacted about his idea by The Spring League, a pro football developmental league.

“It seemed logical that if something could be done to lessen the number of potentially injurious blows to the heads of linemen, that this would be desired by people who care about making the game safer. So, I was delighted when I was contacted by Brian Woods, CEO of The Spring League, who inquired what he might do to help figure this out,” he explains.

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In July 2018, the research team tried out the standing rule in three Spring League practice sessions and one exhibition game in San Diego. Sensors were glued behind the ears of 78 players which recorded the number of hits each player took and how hard each hit was. Players from all positions wore the sensors.

Sure enough, offensive linemen took the most hits to the head (98). However, linemen who stood up to start plays took at least 40% fewer hits than those who started in a three or four point stance like usual.

“If nothing else, this study suggests that you can actually make a big difference with rule changes that quite honestly, at least from our perspective, didn’t affect the game play in any meaningful way. In fact, if you make everybody start in a two-point stance, it’s harder to tell if it’s a run or pass play,” Nauman comments.

This is the first ever study to examine a football rule change within in-game situations. The research was fairly small in scale, but the study’s authors believe their findings speak for themselves.

“Forty percent fewer hits would translate to both games and practices. The next step is to improve coaching and blocking and tackling techniques, which could lead to reducing even more hits to the head,” concludes Thomas Talavage, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Purdue.

The study is published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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