The decisions by Gronk, Luck should change the NFL forever

Jim Hackett
August 29, 2019 - 8:25 am
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NFL football has done one thing very consistently over the course of my lifetime, and that is gain popularity. The NFL stands alone at the top of American sports and popular culture universe and despite the many issues that surround it. The popularity of the sport at the highest level never fades. Not even a little.

However, one of many things that has troubled me in recent years about the future of professional football is player health and how manage it. Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement announcement over the weekend and Rob Gronkowski’s post-retirement promotional announcement earlier this week may have shed a little light on a potential solution to one of the NFL’s biggest problems and that is, overcoming its massive amount of player health issues. 

At the current rate, it’s not sustainable.

As players in the league over the course of time have continued to get bigger, stronger and faster year after year, serious injuries that can alter the trajectory of a player’s career and a team’s fortunes have continued to escalate. Former Patriot and Pro Football Hall of Famer John Hannah is regarded in most circles as the greatest offensive lineman to ever play the game. He played 13 full seasons and stood at roughly 6-foot-2 and his career playing weight fluctuated between 260-270 pounds. Comparatively, current Patriots guard Joe Thuney stands at 6-foot-5 tipping the scales at 308 pounds. The Patriots offensive line features players well clear of the 300-pound mark across the line. It’s just one example of many that you can easily find all over the league.

It starts in college football. Top recruits come out of high school as decent-sized teenagers and just four years later, come out looking like professional wrestlers. The big ones. The really big ones that win all the time like Big John Stud, The Undertaker and Hulk Hogan. Nowadays, defensive ends and tight ends (like Gronk) are coming in bigger than those that used to tow the interior of the gridiron like Hannah. As the old adage goes, the bigger they are the harder they fall. Gronk was hit and hit and hit for nine years straight and finally decided to stay down. Same for Andrew Luck. I don’t blame either of them. Courageous like some in the media have hollered about? No. Media types pushing that narrative need to get a new dictionary. Understandable though? Hell yeah.

For those players listening to their bodies, I salute you. 

I wonder if what we as a nation of football fans witnessed over the last few days may be a historical moment in the timeline of NFL football, a marker that changed the paradigm for its players and how their careers will play out. For those who took a year off to travel before college, it’s called a gap year and I wonder if this could be a new trend in the future NFL. If so it’s not a bad answer to an otherwise escalating problem. In my opinion, it could be a trend that could help extend player careers along with some other changes that just make sense in terms of sustaining player health.

Here’s my four-pronged plan:

- As I mentioned in last week’s column, cut the preseason to two weeks: Minimize the number of preseason games and you minimize the number of opportunities for preseason injuries. 

- Expand the rosters. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, if more players are on the roster and are practicing in a team’s system then they’ll have a better chance to adapt and make an impact quickly. Less ramp-up time helps with injury prevention too as players who understand the scheme will theoretically be in the right place on a given play. They will also be in proper playing shape when called upon, versus coming in off the street, training outside of the team conditioning programs. Additionally, by adding players to the roster everyone could have fresher legs. With larger rosters you have more roster flexibility and thus can pare back another players' reps, keeping them healthier. Lastly, expanded rosters limit the need to rush players back from injury before they are fully ready.

- Someone needs to hold college football programs more accountable for the cattle they are producing. Something’s got to give here. Maybe it’s time to organically grass feed these hogs. When defensive ends are pushing 300 pounds and are able to run like running backs the mega-force of the collisions it creates just isn’t something the human body can absorb consistently. It’s not sustainable. Once upon a time, former Cowboys defensive end, Ed “Too Tall” Jones was considered to be freakishly big. Jones was 6-foot-9, 271 pounds and you know what? He was freakishly big. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I’m not sure what the answer is but I think some kind process that gets players back to a more sustainable playing size would help. Through my lens, that process has to start in college. Maybe instead of having twelve quarter pounders at lunch, make it eight burgers from grass-fed cows, a laxative, a yogurt, some apple slices and lots of water and coffee. Start there. Instead of super-size, let’s cull it down to large helpings please until things level off a bit.

- Legalize it. The players want it. Heck many of them need it and the league is well aware of it. Gronk nearly broke down crying about it on Tuesday when he thought back to the pain, the struggle that came with it and the realization of where he is now that he is removed from it all. At a minimum, the league probably needs to revisit its policy on CBD Oil as too many people from all corners are chanting loudly about the benefits it’s given them. This includes Gronk, a future Hall of Famer and Terrell Davis a popular, modern-day Hall of Famer. 

What a difference a week makes. The NFL will head into its 100th season one week from today. One hundred. It’s one of those classic landmark numbers and the NFL enters this landmark season suddenly without one of its marquis players, Andrew Luck. Days later, one of its most prominent, likable and popular recent stars Rob Gronkowski offered a very candid and emotional look into what the strain and pain of NFL Football can look like. It’s taken 100 years but to me, it feels like time for the league to adapt to the needs of its players and perhaps this past week will offer a different landmark in the life of NFL football.