The NFL released its injury data from this season, compiled and analyzed by an independent, third-party company retained by the league, last week.
The league found that 167 players sustained concussions during regular-season games, which it said was a decrease of 8.7 percent from 2015, when 183 players were concussed in-game.
In a one-of-a-kind analysis, the Observer found 130 players were in the concussion protocol, according to final injury reports, with 93 missing a game.
The Observer’s review does not include players who were in the concussion protocol during the week but were not listed on their team’s final injury report, likely creating the discrepancy between the league’s and the newspaper’s numbers.
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The NFL’s study also included concussions sustained during preseason practices and games, an area of concern for the league. The league found there were 71 preseason concussions, down from 83 in each of the previous two years.
Overall, the NFL counted 244 total concussions during the preseason and regular season, an 11.3 percent drop from the 275 total in 2015.
The total number (244) is line with the five-year average, according to the league.
So while NFL officials were pleased to see a year-over-year dip in concussions, they say there’s more work to do.
Mitch Berger, a neurosurgeon and member of the league’s head, neck and spine committee since 2009, says he was relieved when he saw this season’s concussion statistics.
“I was encouraged that the numbers are down, but I'm still far from satisfied,” said Berger, who’s also an unaffiliated neuro-trauma consultant (UNCs) for the NFL during games. “As a health care provider, I think one of our absolute highest priorities is to get these numbers further down. We're going to have to really think about the ways in which we can do this.”
The league has spent $200 million to fund concussion research and study advances in protective equipment.
Officials also believe rules changes, stricter enforcement of gameday protocol and efforts to educate teams and players on head injuries have helped.
The indepedent neuro-consultants on each sideline are critical to the league’s gameday concussion protocol. The UNCs, along with the team doctors and booth spotters, are trained to look for players exhibiting symptoms during games and evaluate them – on the sideline initially and then in the locker room if necessary.
The NFL and NFLPA this season also began more strictly enforcing the protocol and issuing penalties for teams that violate. The league and union reviewed the Panthers’ handling of quarterback Cam Newton in a Week 1 loss at Denver before determining the team followed protocol.
The two entities announced last week the Miami Dolphins did not follow protocol when a big hit caused quarterback Matt Moore to begin bleeding from the mouth during a playoff loss at Pittsburgh. The Dolphins were ordered to engage their staff in a review of the protocol and conduct additional education as necessary – a relatively light punishment given that the team could have been fined.
Panthers team physician Robert Heyer said he has seen a cultural change with concussions over the past three seasons, with more players self-reporting symptoms. Heyer said self-reporting is critical in terms of a player’s recovery from a brain injury.
“If a player spends an extra quarter or even a game on the field with a concussion, it lengthens the amount of time required for them to return to their normal baseline state. So that's an important fact,’ Heyer said during a conference call held last week in conjunction with the release of the league’s injury data.
“The other issue is the players trusting that they're being cared for. We still have a few players that will not report. But I think we are identifying injuries that may not have been identified in previous years because of the self-reporting by the players.”