There is no getting around the fact that football is one of the roughest sports out there and one of the league’s priorities has to be safety. The NFL has to make sure that players want to play in the league and feel safe while playing it. If there is one scenario the NFL did not want to see it is what is happening to the San Francisco 49ers.
This offseason, the 49ers have gone from a playoff contender three years removed from a Super Bowl loss to a team without an identity and could be in the bottom of the division. One of the surprises this team has had to deal with is the retirement of so many players that are either in or just about to enter their prime. It looks like it is going to be a long season as the team is going to be scrambling to fix some holes.
Out of the five players that retired, only one of them was understandable and that was the 35-year-old defensive end Justin Smith who had five straight Pro Bowl appearances. Two of the players that retired were a little more of a shock is Raymond Ventrone and linebacker Patrick Willis who were 32 and 30 respectively. These players still had a couple of seasons in the league, although Willis’ retirement may have been facilitated due to some nagging injuries.
The two retirements that came as big surprises are linebacker Chris Borland and offensive tackle Anthony Davis. Borland is 24 years old and he just had a great rookie season with the 49ers last year where he had 108 tackles and was the Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. Davis is 25 years old and has been in the league for four years after being taken in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Davis had started all 71 games he played in but called it a career last week. Both of these young players cited head injuries as reasons for their retirement.
For the future of the league to be secured, they need to take a closer look at the safety of their players. If more and more players are concerned about the lingering effects of concussions and injuries, there could be a sharp decline in the number of players who try to make a career of it. The NFL is one of the most valuable forms of entertainment in the world and they need to make sure the quality of the product remains at a high level.
While it may not look as entertaining a product if players can’t make those big hits that makes us rewind our DVRs and watch again in slow motion while cringing, the quality of the product is better for a long period of time. The league has started trying to control this with rules protecting quarterbacks and hits on defenseless receivers, but it is impossible to stop those hits from happening. There will always be accidents and the occasional dirty player, but it was a start.
So how should the league approach the cautious subject that is concussions? The first step is going to be an expensive one, but they need to supply each team with doctors not employed by the individual teams to perform concussion tests during the game. A player will be required to undergo tests if they show any signs of being woozy after a hit to the head. A play like New England’s Julian Edelman had in the Super Bowl last year should have been reviewed carefully.
The NFL needs to make sure that the players know that they have their back if they get injured. They need to establish an unbiased third party to come in and check in with players who had concussions during the offseason. If a player missed games due to a concussion they should have to see a specialist during the spring to make sure that they are recovering properly. The NFL settled its concussion suit to pay $5 million to retired players, but that leaves some questions to future players. What’s to stop players from retiring and claiming they had concussions to claim money.
The situation that is going on with the 49ers is something the NFL needs to keep an eye on. The team lost three big players due to injury concerns and that could have a negative impact on the league. If some other teams start losing young players like the 49ers did, then it will become something the league needs to fix soon if they don’t want to see a drop-off in good young players. It would take a couple of years, but the league needs to make sure it doesn’t get that far.