NFL Sees a Drop in Concussions, But Problems Linger

December 5, 2014

(AP Photo/Paul Spinelli)

As the final month of the NFL’s regular season begins, the league’s response to concerns over a link between football and traumatic brain injury may finally be making a difference on the field, according to a FRONTLINE analysis of officially reported head injuries.

Through the first 13 weeks of the season, a total of 96* concussions have been disclosed on team injury reports, down from 115 at the same point last season and 128 in 2012. At the current pace, teams are on track to report at least 122 concussions, a drop of nearly 20 percent from a year ago.

Data from FRONTLINE’s Concussion Watch project — which has been tracking head injuries since 2012 — finds that players are also spending slightly more time away from the field after sustaining a head injury.

But despite the progress, the league continues to struggle with instances of players remaining on the field after a concussion. The NFL’s concussion protocol requires teams to sideline any player suspected of having a concussion, keeping them off the field for the rest of the game. According to the protocol, players must then pass a series of medical tests before they can return to play.

In an October memo, four top doctors associated with the league and the NFL Players’ Association — including the co-chairs of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee — told team physicians that more can be done to improve how concussion guidelines are followed.

“We have generally been pleased with the care provided to players who have suffered concussions in both the preseason and during the first part of the regular season,” the doctors wrote. “That said, there remain occasional examples of where more care can be given to adhering to the relevant protocols.”

The memo also noted that some players continue to hide concussion symptoms to avoid being sidelined.

“Please remind your players of the need to be candid with the medical staffs and with each other,” the memo urged. “In this respect, you should emphasize that the NFLPA supports the concussion protocols and that players should never hide, deny or attempt to minimize their symptoms.”

The memo was sent following a controversial missed diagnosis in Week 8, when San Diego Chargers safety Jahleel Addae rammed his helmet into Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Addae fell to the ground following the hit. He was initially diagnosed with a stinger — a pinched spinal cord — and allowed to return to play.

A hit later in the third quarter left Addae, No. 37 in the video below, visibly shaken. But team officials missed it, and Addae was allowed to finish the game.

The Chargers announced Addae’s injury the next day, after he reported a headache. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said that Addae was tested for a concussion after the first hit.

A probe conducted by the NFL and the NFL Players Association found no problems with the league’s guidelines, nor with the Chargers’ medical staff. Instead, it focused on a pressbox spotter who missed Addae’s reaction to the hit.

Others hadn’t missed it. Legendary commentator John Madden was “livid,” according to NBC Sports, and a Vine of Addae convulsing after the hit has been viewed more than 400,000 times.

The league did not offer an official comment on the inquiry, according to CBS.

“Obviously it wasn’t a pretty sight,” Addae told Fox Sports weeks later, “but I’ve moved on from it.”

Addae has not played since.

The previous week, questions were raised about the a blow to the head suffered by Detroit Lions offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle in the second-to-last play of a game against New Orleans. Waddle, who remained in the game for the final play, a kneel-down, said he didn’t realize he had a concussion until after the game ended. Acknowledging that he felt “a little bit woozy,” Waddle said, “I thought I got shook up a little bit but I thought I was good, you know.”

When asked why Waddle remained in the game, Lions coach Jim Caldwell told reporters “The final snap of the game, we knew it was only one snap, then the doctors reviewed him, took a look at him, it wasn’t one of those situations where he felt he had to go in the locker room right away.” The Lions later released a statement saying that an independent NFL medical observer notified the team of the possible injury during the last play.

A collision that same week between Brandon Flowers of the Chargers and Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs highlighted the second concern in the physicians’ memo: players choosing not to report their head injuries. Flowers suffered a concussion on the play. Charles said the head-to-head collision left him “seeing light bulbs, like, light bulbs around my eyes,” but that he chose to stay in the game in order to avoid the league’s concussion protocol.


Although the total number of head injuries will likely drop in 2014, the distribution of those concussions is following a pattern similar to past seasons. According to the Concussion Watch data:

  • Injuries have been evenly distributed between players on offense on defense. Defensive players have suffered 52 head injuries this season; players on offense have had 44.
  • Among defensive positions, cornerbacks are still the most vulnerable to concussions, taking the biggest toll as football has shifted increasingly to passing play. They’ve had 21 concussions this season, almost twice as many as wide receivers, the most concussion-prone position on offense.
  • Of the players placed on the league’s concussion protocol,  many still return to practice within days, and play in the following game — but it has been less common this season. In 2012 and 2013, Concussion Watch found that players who suffered concussions returned to the field without missing a game nearly 50 percent of the time, even though guidelines written by the American Academy of Neurology and endorsed by the player’s association say that a player is at greatest risk for further injury within 10 days after the initial injury. This season, less than than 40 percent of injured players have left the concussion protocol and returned to play without missing a game.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals have had the highest number of head injuries, counting seven concussions since the preseason. One team, the Miami Dolphins, hasn’t reported any head injuries.

If the current pace of head injuries continues, this season’s concussion count will fall just shy of the 2010 total — the first season under the NFL’s new concussion rules.

The past two seasons have shown, however, that only about two-thirds of all head injuries tallied in the NFL’s year-end concussion count ever make it onto team injury reports during the season.

* Editor’s note: This post was updated following the release of NFL team injury reports for Week 14 on Dec. 5.  

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