San Francisco 49ers rookie safety Eric Reid left Sunday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks after a scary collision with wide receiver Sidney Rice, and Reid’s hit, which left him with a concussion, capped off a day of football that featured a half-dozen scary moments. Before Reid, there was San Diego wide receiver Malcolm Floyd leaving on a stretcher with a neck injury, helmet still on, after a crushing hit across the middle. Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy left his game after a helmet-to-helmet hit from Washington safety Brandon Meriwether, who later left the game with a concussion of his own after another head-to-head hit. Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson left his game with an apparent concussion too, after Tennessee Titans safety Bernard Pollard hit him near the head.
Reid’s hit, however, was not of the helmet-to-helmet variety. Reid met Rice over the middle of the field right as Rice made the catch, tilted his head sideways and planted his shoulder into the wide receiver’s chest. His head still got caught in the action, and Reid’s body buckled as he and Rice hit the CenturyLink Field turf. Reid was out cold, not on a dirty or even questionable play — like Meriwether’s hit on Lacy — that the NFL is doing its best to get rid of, but on a routine play that happens dozens of times each Sunday. Watch it here, via SBNation.
It left NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, a former NFL wide receiver himself, wondering if recent NFL rule changes that seek to eliminate helmet-to-helmet contact particularly on wide receivers also have unintended consequences for defensive players like Reid.
“It’s one of the things, and there are so many positives about the helmet rule and the contact,” Collinsworth said. “Sometimes I do worry, though, that defenders find themselves having to put their head in an awkward position trying to avoid a penalty, and sometimes by doing that you put yourself in a dangerous situation. I mean, there’s no perfect rule and there’s no perfect situation. Everybody’s trying to air on the side of safety. Goodness knows, they’ve done all they can.”
Collinsworth went on to tell a story about suffering a concussion on the first play of a game in Cincinnati, after which he didn’t remember playing an entire quarter. Reid, Lacy, Meriwether, and Johnson were all removed from competition for the remainder of their games, so the NFL has undoubtedly improved since Collinsworth left the NFL after the 1988 season (most of that improvement has come in the last few years). The question is how much the NFL can improve from where it is now. So while Collinsworth may or may not be correct in his concern, the play that left Reid with a concussion is the NFL’s worst nightmare: try as it may, it might not be possible to make football safer than it is today.
Rule changes that seek to eliminate hits like Meriwether’s — he incidentally suffered his own concussion trying to level a similar hit on James Starks — are unquestionably a good thing. But they also present other problems. Defensive players have said the focus on head injuries is causing them to go low, thereby increasing the possibility of devastating knee injuries like the one Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller suffered in the preseason. Those concerns are hard to judge: knee injuries like Keller’s end seasons and maybe even careers, but are they as bad in the long-term as concussions and head injuries? Almost certainly not. But if Collinsworth is right, if defensive players end up putting their heads in compromising positions in an effort to avoid head-to-head hits, there’s no easy way to address it.
And therein lies the problem, even if Collinsworth is wrong. There was nothing dirty about Reid’s hit, and nothing dirty about the preseason knee to the head that knocked out Buffalo Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb and may have ended his career. The reality is that concussions aren’t a mere occurrence but a default result of playing the game, and that only compounds problems created by new research showing that non-concussive blows to the head, the type that happen hundreds of times in any game, are just as dangerous to players’ long-term health as concussions. The NFL can do its best to limit concussions and improve treatment and monitoring of players who suffer them, and its new rules will help it do that. But no amount of rule changes will fix the problem if football is the problem itself.