Player Safety, College Football Rules, and an Idea Whose Time Has Passed

Let's just run. - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

When Just Some Dawg expressed his concerns about the targeting penalty, I followed the exchange with interest, and I ultimately left a comment proposing what I admit is a radical solution to the problem of traumatic head injuries in football. In order to further additional discussion, I have adapted and expanded that comment into the following fanpost:

A little over a century ago, severe traumatic injuries such as that which claimed the life of Georgia player Von Gammon threatened the future of college football, causing sweeping rules changes to be implemented. Over a period of several years, the field was shortened, mass play and pushing the ballcarrier from behind were prohibited, and teams were required to have seven men on the line of scrimmage. All of these made the game safer, and those rules changes should be retained.

However, one change made in the early 20th century needs to be abandoned in the early 21st century. The forward pass needs to be outlawed once more.

Ere any aficionado of the modern game scoffs at such antediluvian thinking, we should pause to note that, of the numerous reforms implemented by the forerunner of the modern NCAA in 1910, the expanded iteration of forward pass was by far the most controversial. Staunchly opposed by gridiron rules guru Walter Camp, the forward pass was the subject of numerous proposals featuring a wide variety of permutations, demonstrating the malleability of the very concept.

Harvard’s Crawford Blagden radically expanded the limited notion of an offensive aerial by suggesting a more liberal approach than was generally deemed acceptable. Blagden recommended allowing the pass to cross the line of scrimmage at any point and permitting players stationed in the offensive backfield to be eligible receivers; the more modest idea favored by most others at the time required passes to cross the line of scrimmage five yards from the center of the line and made only the ends permissible targets. To blunt the impact of his sweeping innovation, Blagden added a limitation that a receiver had to be within 16 yards of the line of scrimmage.

After much disputatious debate, Blagden’s basic notion carried the day. A passer could throw to either end or to any player emerging from the offensive backfield, and the ball could cross the line of scrimmage at any point. However, there were limitations on the location of the passer (five yards behind the line) and the receiver (20 yards beyond the line), and, upon a third-down incompletion, the defense would take possession at the point from which the passer unleashed the aerial. Even with those restrictions, the proposal was only adopted by a narrow vote of 8-6. An essential element of college football the forward pass most certainly is not.

This fact matters because the sorts of brain-jarring hits the targeting rule is designed to prevent aren’t typically happening on running plays, for the simple reason that there’s a limit to how big a head of steam a tailback can build up in the reduced space within which he has to run. (This goes back to the kickoff issue; there are a disproportionate number of injuries sustained on kickoffs because everyone is running the entire length of the field at full speed. It’s a question of physics, given the combination of mass, velocity, and distance.) Ordinarily, a running back is either tackled near the line of scrimmage by a player who began running to the ballcarrier from a point near the line of scrimmage, or he breaks into the secondary and is never tackled, is nudged or steps out of bounds, or is brought down by a defender who arrives without a great deal of momentum because he was stationed in the defensive backfield in the first place.

Usually, running backs go out with lower extremity injuries instead of concussions, and there is no penalty called "roughing the hander-offer" because quarterbacks don’t get hit on designed running plays; even when the signal caller is the ballcarrier, he is taught to slide feet-first before being brought down violently. The ground game was more dangerous when teams moved up and down the field in a phalanx, but, with the rules revisions of the early 1900s, it became safe to run the danged ball; that is all the more true today, due to dramatic improvements in the quality of equipment.

It’s the passing plays that are dangerous. Quarterbacks drop back in the pocket, and defenders bear down on them at full speed. Receivers streak down the field, and defensive backs streak over to meet them. Those are the types of plays that produce hits like the one Junior Rosegreen put on Reggie Brown, and, regrettably, those are the types of plays that produce penalties like the ones against Ray Drew and Ramik Wilson. Once again, it’s physics; pass plays cover greater distances at greater speeds, so they’re bound to produce more devastating impacts.

The increased dangers inherent in passing plays are attested to by the injury reports. Thus far this season, there have been 51 concussions suffered by players in the National Football League. The plurality of those concussions (15) have been suffered by defensive backs, and nearly that many (14) have been sustained by quarterbacks (3), tight ends (3), and wide receivers (8). Linebackers, who also aid in pass coverage, account for another half-dozen, bringing the total among passers, pass-catchers, and pass-defenders to 35, or more than two-thirds of the total. Despite being hit virtually on every play as a matter of course, defensive linemen, offensive linemen, and running backs combined accounted for just 16, so nearly seven out of ten concussions in the NFL are sustained by players most commonly involved in attempts over the top, and that is without even taking into account the number of injuries suffered by linemen and tailbacks on passing plays.

There is an old saying in football that three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad. Actually, there are more possibilities than that, and most of them are bad. We can’t make the players smaller or slower, and we shouldn’t make the equipment less safe. In the name of safety, we’ve been implementing rules changes that tilt the game unreasonably far in favor of the offense. It’s time to level the playing field in a way that produces the reality, and not merely the appearance, of greater safety.

In the name of player safety, it’s time to restore one traditional aspect of football by making the forward pass illegal once more.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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