East Jefferson General Hospital

Optimum Performance: NFL Players Already Feeling Physical Impact Early in Season

There is no doubt NFL play is a physical, hard-fought battle each week, causing many teams to lose on average 1.0 to 2.7 players per game to injury. These injuries can be as simple as a bruise to as severe as multiple ligaments and muscles being torn by the impact of human bodies crashing into each other on every play, about 65 each on offense and defense during an NFL game.

I previously reported on the research of Timothy Gay, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska and author of the book, "The Physics of Football," that a typical 5-foot-9 defensive back, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds can generate up to 1,600 pounds of tackling force upon impact with the ball carrier.

From additional research, the knee's anterior cruciate ligament can withstand roughly 500 force pounds of pressure. However, a side impact or an evasive maneuver (even without contact) can cause an ACL tear under less stressful conditions. It all comes down to the angle of attack.

Steeler running back LaRod Stephens-Howling suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in Week 1 against the Titans and will miss the rest of this season. He was injured in the third quarter after catching a 7-yard pass.

So to learn more about the potential trauma associated with collisions in the NFL, I reached out to the No. 1 trauma center in the country -- the Interim LSU Hospital right here in New Orleans -- to ask: Is there anything comparable in an auto accident to what an NFL player might experience?

"In football," according to John Hunt, Professor and Chief of the Division of Trauma & Critical Care Surgery at LSU Health Sciences Center, "the exact location of the hit is what often produces the injury. (Giants linebacker) Lawrence Taylor struck (Redskins QB) Joe Theismann just right, in order to snap his tibia.  This is a common injury in motor vehicle crashes as a rapid deceleration of a driver or front-seat passenger forces their legs into the dashboard/floorboard.  It is also common in pedestrians struck by a car."

The playing surfaces in the NFL, grass or synthetic turf, also take a toll.

FieldTurf, which is made of polyethylene fibers over a mix of sand and rubber particles, is used by 21 of 32 NFL teams for either practice or playing fields.

A recent study finds that "National Football League players suffered more knee and ankle injuries when they played on FieldTurf over the past decade." Lead study author Dr. Elliott Hershman, a former chairman of the NFL Injury and Safety Panel stated, "I think the main messages here are that different surfaces behave differently and that injury rates can be different on different surfaces."

A Popular Mechanics story described how the type of field surface is measured in terms of shock absorbency by dropping an object the size of a human head and neck (20 square inches and 20 pounds) from 2 feet above the respective surface. The metric is called G-Max.

A low G-Max absorbs more energy than a player. Grass has a G-Max of 60, while synthetic turf has a G-Max of 120. The hardest surface is frozen grass.

On average up to Week 10 of the NFL season, teams are without 2.7 players during the regular season due to the physics of football.

Take a look at some of the damage control in Week 1. Joining Stephens-Howling on the injury list was teammate and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who had surgery this week to repair torn ligaments in his right knee. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote had surgery to repair a ruptured right biceps. All three players are out for the year in Pittsburgh.

The Jaguars will be without quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who sliced the back of his throwing hand on a defender's facemask. Joining Gabbert on the sideline will be Jags rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz, who will miss at least three games with a high-ankle sprain. This injury will take some time for proper recovery and could put Gratz at risk for a future knee injury, if not addressed in his rehabilitation program.

The Patriots placed running back Shane Vereen on injured reserve with a designation to return in eight weeks. Vereen suffered a small break in his left wrist and had surgery last Monday to repair the damage.

And, let's not forget the impact of a concussion and the new screening process instituted this year. Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley was twice cleared by physicians to return last Sunday against Tampa Bay after sustaining a head injury on a helmet-to-helmet hit in the second quarter. He did not play Thursday night.

Dr. Hunt said about the safety afforded to the player by an NFL helmet: "There have been some changes in helmet design, increased padding, etc. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin suggests that there are no differences between old and new helmets with regard to efficacy in preventing concussion. The mechanism of concussion most likely comes from a very soft brain rapidly moving within the head, after a hit, to strike a very hard skull. 

"A helmet may attenuate this movement somewhat, but hardly prevents it. The incessant repetition of these hits over a football player's career is what leads to the long-term deficits seen later in the player's life. Your brain was not designed to be repeatedly struck."

When asked if the human body is designed to withstand the high impact of pro football over an entire career which, on average lasts three years, Hunt said: "It was not designed to do this. It was designed to run and jump and its vital organs are fairly well protected by the skeleton and bones. It has no features that would suggest it was designed to be repeatedly hit."

Headed into Week 2, the Saints and the Buccaneers can likely expect to have a few players sidelined by injury. According to the weekly NFL injury report, the Saints had three players who did not participate in this week's practice: defensive linemen Brodrick Bunkley and Tyrunn Walker, and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus (who has has been withheld from practice since Week 1). The Saints also listed four players (DE Glenn Foster, CB Jabari Greer, RB Khiry Robinson, LB Curtis Lofton) as "limited participation" in practice this week.

Tampa Bay had two players to sit out practice: TE Tom Crabtree and CB Michael Adams. The Buccaneers listed only two players as limited in practice (G Carl Nicks, CB Rashaan Melvin). 

A hamstring injury is considered to be the most debilitating of all NFL maladies, because players either come back or are brought back too quickly, resulting in a 50 percent re-injury rate. The Saints' Galette and Bucs' Melvin both have that injury.

At this point in the season, "limited in practice" rarely amount to much other than appropriate health care management. All hands will be on deck to slug it out for this NFC South rivalry between the Saints and Bucs. Let's see Monday how many players are left standing.

 

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He's the Executive Director of the Fitness Principle with Mackie Shilstone at East Jefferson General Hospital. Contact him at mackieshilstone.com.