After a notably injury-riddled Week 2 of the 2020 NFL season, we wrote about putting that week into context and explored injury rates in different stadiums and on different surfaces over the last four years. Our concern was that after the shortened offseason program due to COVID-19, there could be a greater risk of injuries in the early part of the NFL season.
Unfortunately, a notable trend emerges when we look at how the early part of this NFL season played out when compared to the three previous seasons:
Weeks with Most NFL Injuries Causing Players to Leave the Field (2017-2020)
|Rank||Season||Week||Injuries||Left the Field|
Not only did Week 4 of this season include even more injuries than the aforementioned Week 2, but Weeks 3 and 7 also tied for the 10th-most injuries that caused players to leave the field over the last four years. In terms of early-season injuries, which were the specific concern after the shortened offseason program, four of the top five September and October weeks with the most injuries happened in 2020. Specifically, the painful three-week span from Week 2 through Week 4 shows that experts were right to be concerned about injuries this year.
Another way to look at the rise in injuries in the first half of 2020 is by looking at the average injuries through the first half of the season (we’ll call it Weeks 1-8) when compared to the last few years. From 2017-19, there was an average of 477 injuries causing players to leave the field during the first half of the year. In 2020, the figure was up to 555, an increase of 16% over the previous three-year average, and more than 60 injuries more than any of those years individually.
Turf is also a Problem
Our early-season analysis was prompted not only by curiosity about the injury rates coming off the shortened offseason, but also by the 49ers’ accusations about the Giants’ and Jets’ home, MetLife Stadium, and sure enough, it is tied for the third-most severe injuries per game so far this year. While that’s certainly not a good thing for a stadium that is named after an insurance company, it has not been an outlier that would lead me to propose that something must be done about it.
At the same time, for all of the attention that the NFL pays to player safety, the trend of increased injuries on turf, as opposed to grass fields, grows more and more alarming as data continues to emerge showing that turf fields have higher injury rates than grass ones.
NFL Injuries by Field Type (2017-2020)
|Field Type||Games||Injuries Per Game||Left the Field Per Game|
If we are going to go so far as to make the case that turf field surfaces need to change, it would be good to have a better understanding of what is driving the increased injury rates that we see on turf fields. Curiously, when splitting injuries by what we call “contact type” we did not see an increase in non-contact injuries driving the increased injury rates on turf fields. Instead, it appears to be contact between players that is driving the increase in injury rates on turf fields. Although this did not match my expectation, it makes sense that contact with other players would be the driver if only because these injuries account for by far the most injuries of any of the contact types.
NFL Injuries per Game by Field and Contact Type (2017-2020)
|Field Type||Non-Contact||Contact with Ground||Contact with Player|
More research needs to be done to understand this phenomenon because it appears that turf is a real problem for player safety. While the impact of turf does not appear to be as large as the incredible impact that the disruption of 2020 had on NFL injury rates earlier this season, there is evidence of potential multi-million dollar inefficiencies in the simple field surface that teams are choosing. If the NFL could cut close to half an injury per game by simply changing to natural grass, I would think that is something that the NFLPA might be interested in. If this research proves to extend to other levels, then everybody from colleges to high schools and beyond might need to come to a reckoning about the cost of turf on athletes’ bodies.