Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Feb 2006

Two-Way Players and NFL's Deadly Problem

Scripps Howard News Service has conducted a study that concludes that NFL players often die young because they're too heavy. King Kaufman proposes that requiring players to play both offense and defense would force the largest players to shed some fat and improve their stamina, which would make them less likely to die of heart ailments.

Kaufman also presents his Ten things I thought I was thinking, then I thought I forgot, then remembered I was thinking but didn't think they were worth mentioning, but then I changed my mind and thought they were pretty good thoughts, I think, about the Super Bowl.

If you're not a Salon.com subscriber, you'll need to watch a short ad before reading this column.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 01 Feb 2006

33 comments, Last at 02 Feb 2006, 3:06am by Pat


by masocc (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:16pm

Ummm, I didn't RTFA, but...

No, King. Making everyone play both sides of the ball would just mean that the larger gentleman would play o-line, tight end or full back for 3 or 4 plays a game.

by Kal (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:17pm

So the solution to players being fat and dying after they stop playing football is to make them play both ways so that they die DURING football? When did football become Thunderdome?

by B (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:24pm

There's something wrong with his 10 things... section, and I think I know what it is. There's actually 10 items, and none of them are about coffee or travel related complaints.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:26pm

The other thing is that really, it's just a risk - you know, like the risk of dying of heatstroke during practice, or dying after a game of a freak heart attack.

The NFL isn't required to eliminate risk. Just mitigate it. The solution here is to have the NFL require the team dietician and physician evaluate each player's weight and long-term health and advise the player accordingly.

by White Rose Duelist (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:28pm

"[A]s a group they'd be a lot less slimmer."

Thank you for your insights, King.

And why is it that every MMQB parody list's best feature is the title parodying MMQB's list header?

by Richie (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:28pm

I've been wondering if the NFL will eventually need to instill a weight limit.

It SEEMS like there are more injuries every season (maybe there aren't - it just seems like it). I think a big problem is guys who are huge and fast.

by masocc (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:31pm

Okay, I broke down and RTFA. I also won the Salon Ad lottery, and only had to answer a question about whether ads suck or not.

My point stands... though I focused on the wrong side of the ball, I guess. 0-lineman would just rotate in to DT for 3-4 plays a game. Big whoop.

by masocc (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 4:38pm

A couple things:

1) I think Hass has a better chance of being better than Bradshaw & Tittle. Roethlisberger has a LONG way to go before he's better than Boomer.

2) Interesting sports injury related note: In Washington State, the L&I worker's compensation premium for NFL players is VERY significantly less than for 'baseball, basketball and soccer' professionals. Considering the premium is based off of injury risk, history, and projections, does this mean the NFL *really* has less injuries than the other pro sports? Or does this reflect the propensity of NFL players to 'play hurt' more often, and thus still receive their paycheck? Discuss.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 5:27pm

Masocc, if subsitutions were limited, that is, a player who came off the field had to stay off the field for a quarter or more, then one could really force players to be truly two-way players. Of course, given this would likely mean fewer players would be making big money, since fewer would be considered stars, there is approximately zero chance that the players association would approve of this.

by masocc (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 5:43pm

Dear gawd, that scenario would be even worse, Will! Injuries would go through the roof, across the board. And the game would go to hell, too. Unless they made it that ONLY linemen had to play both sides of the ball or something.

But even then... out of breath? Tweak a toe? Nope, sorry, stay on the field Bub, we can't afford to lose you for a quarter. Let the cascading injuries begin.

This is SO not a solution.

by Craig B (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 5:45pm

Without having read the article, the only way I could see this working is if the roster size was significantly reduced. If roster sizes were small enough, players would be forced to play both ways. However, the NFLPA would never go for it, and since the NFL is so successful right now, why would the owners even attempt something like this?

by Erik (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 5:47pm

There are a couple of problems with this study's assumptions.

The first assumption is that these guys would be slim if they weren't football players. Would Porkchop Womack be a 200 pounder if he didn't play football? Would he be at less risk for a heart attack at 50 years old if he didn't play football? It's not at all clear.

Second, they assume that putting on the weight to play football means that you'll keep it on for the rest of your life. Our local paper (Albuquerque) recently ran a couple of articles arguing that football players were too big. In one they interviewed a lineman who felt a lot of pressure to keep his weight up. What was he doing 2 years after he stopped playing? He had lost about 90 pounds and was getting on with his life.

The final error is that they compare the death rates of "big" NFL players with the general population. "Big" people are always going to have higher death rates. A better control group would be "big" members of the general population so that you could then determine whether being football player was a factor in the early death.

by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 5:51pm

All I want to know is how is Sean Salisbury considered a four-syllable quarterback? I mean, I can understand there's room for argument with Esaison, though I've always thought it was es-SIGH-uh-sun (both when he played for the Bengals and when he played for the Jets). And I appreciate that he shares that opinion, as I wouldn't want my boss to look over my shoulder and see any diphthongs. But unless there's some weird Nordic pronunciation thing going on up in Minnesota, how is Salisbury anything other than SOLZ-bur-ee? If anything, I could understand an argument that it's SOLZ-bree, not even three syllables. But really, does King think some people actually pronounce it SOL-us-bur-ee? Come on...

by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:00pm

#11: If I recall correctly, NFL roster sizes used to be considerably smaller. In the 30s and 40s, I think they were around 30-33 players. But you're correct, the NFLPA would never go for this -- and I think most fans wouldn't either. I mean, even with a 45-man activer roster, you've got specialization down to the level of the nickel CB, the third-down running back, and the long snapper, and I think most fans prefer that to seeing how well Shaun Alexander can cover or how good Larry Foote is at fullback.

If you want to see two-way players, watch Arena Football.

by kleph (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:00pm

an amazing and almost completely overlooked piece of ancillary information that came out of that report is that 19 percent of the 130 players who died before age 50 died from homicides or suicides.

the espn link on my name has more info from the study.

by Craig B (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:01pm

Everyone I know pronounces it SAL-IZ-BEAR-EE and Esiason is pronounced EH-SI-UH-SIN.

Anyway, he says that a weight limit of 275 wouldn't work. Well, of course, it wouldn't work next year, but it could over time. Starting with the extreme of say 350, the weight limit could work its way down to 275 by 2010. That's only 7.5 pounds a season. I'm not saying it is (or is not) in the best interests of the game, but it could work.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:14pm

If you really wanted to force the issue, one would, in some form, stress-test all players twice a season, and failing would mean being put on the PUP list until one passed. The single best predictor of longevity, first established in a study at Stanford University, is not obesity or body fat percentage, but the ability to achieve and maintain a high metabolic rate. If a guy can do it at 350 pounds he's healthy enough to play. Of course, very few 350 pounders in the NFL could pass the sort of stress test that a wide receiver could with ease, and would likely have to shed considerable weight to get on the field.

Of course, there would be a few sumo-types who could carry the load, and pass such a test, and they would have a very significant advantage, and probably would make a boat-load of money.

by kleph (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:22pm

and further evidence this is a problem that will not be leaving anytime soon, today Florida signed 310-lb Corey Hobbs and 330-lb Carl Johnson.

by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:24pm

The last guy to really play both ways in the NFL was C/LB Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles, who did it for one final year in 1960, after free substitution, because a starting linebcker was injured and he played both ways up to two years before. Chuck Bednarik is also one nasty son of a gun who over the course of his career broke his fingers more was than you can count, though he supposedly still plays the accordion. He also only missed three games in his 13 year career, and was 37 when he retired. And he ran a concrete business during the summer.

Also, he does not think highly of Deion Sanders.

I'm not sure if this was supposed to go anywhere, but I thought it was impressive to tell.

by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:27pm

He was also 233 pounds and 6'3".

by Countertorque (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 6:29pm

RE: #10

The article says that college football was played this way until the 60's. So, I'm guessing it wasn't entirely unworkable. Certainly I'm no expert on the subject.

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 8:08pm

Dear gawd, that scenario would be even worse, Will! Injuries would go through the roof, across the board.

Not necessarily, if you believe that injury rates are inflated by having so many crazily huge men flying around.

by Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 11:26pm

Let us assume that teams couldn't cheat and just play guys both ways for a handful of plays. This means that every guy in the league, all of whom are far bigger and stronger than players were even 15 years ago, is playing at least 50% more plays per game, and he can't leave the game becuase he may not be able to return.
The NCAA once had a rule that any player who came out of a game couldn't return. Unsprisingly, that lead to guys playing with concussions and broken bones, and a small number of deaths. This was in the days when a 225lb. man was considered huge.

Add all that together and two-way players equals a terrible, terrible idea.

by putnamp (not verified) :: Wed, 02/01/2006 - 11:30pm


Linebackers and Running backs are still huge. If linemen got to their size, they'd be huge too. I think you're being ambiguous about what constitutes huge, and the truth is, almost everyone on the field is huge.

by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 12:24am

If you really wanted to force the issue, one would, in some form, stress-test all players twice a season, and failing would mean being put on the PUP list until one passed.

The stress test is a good idea - but banning a player from playing is nuts. The players have the choice to risk their health, just like the same way their head coaches have the choice to risk their health by working 22-hour days.

But I definitely agree that the NFL should very much attempt to discourage excessive weight gain, or at least ensure that once they leave the NFL, they get back to a level that's healthy. It's a risk, a risk that several players are taking. The important thing is that they are taking an informed risk.

And no, this isn't the same as steroids, which presents a risk to other players as well. Plus there are ways to mitigate obesity risk, as well.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 12:35am

Yeah, pat, but I could see a day where a guy has a cardiac event on the field, and then the club could get stuck with a workmens' comp claim; I wonder if it may be being litigated with the 49er who died in the locker room this summer. I know when Korey Stringer died, a death which was certainly related to the size of the player, several lawsuits filed by the family were dismissed, but that doesn't mean the death was costless event to the Vikings.

Teams have a financial interest is avoiding these outcomes, and thus forcing players to pass stress tests in order to maintain eligibility is not wholly irrational, if it could be negotiated with the Union, which does, after all, have an interest in protecting the health of players.

by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 1:08am

Yeah, pat, but I could see a day where a guy has a cardiac event on the field, and then the club could get stuck with a workmens’ comp claim

The problems we're talking about here aren't immediate health concerns - if there are immediate health concerns, the team physician has to take action. They're more long-term actions - that is, post-football health.

It's very, very similar to an executive overworking himself. It's bad for their health, but they're choosing to do it. I don't see how they can be held responsible.

Honestly, there's nothing really the NFL needs to do about it - these are long-term health concerns, and the NFL is nowhere near the only employer which effectively "encourages" people who live less than healthy lifestyles. It's just good policy for them to take action, though, because for the most part, the infrastructure is already there.

by J (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 1:19am


choice...Sure they have a choice....lose weight, get healthy, AND lose their million-dollar jobs. Or stay big, keep their jobs, AND make millions.

If someone wants to get healthy and lose weight, there will be someone else who would rather make the money (take the risk) and play.

Tough choice.

We are talking about the NFL, a multibillion dollar business, who have many good lawyers on their payroll to defeat such claims...see Mike Webster.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 1:22am

Pat, when Korey Stringer's size affected his ability to survive being overheated, that was pretty danged immediate, wasn't it?

Look, if a guy suffers a concussion, they no longer just send him back out, as was once common, and guys with multiple concussions are strongly encouraged to retire, if not forced to, because of the problems that may crop up ten years after retirement. This isn't really any different, in that forcing people to stay fit when they are playing decreases the chance of serious injury or death while the career is ongoing, and decreases the chance of being dangerously out of shape after retirement.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 1:27am

J., nobody has invincible lawyers, and it only takes one loss to begin a losing streak. Ask the tobacco companies.

I agree with your other statement though, in that allowing a player to be dangerously large gives great economic incentive for others to do the same, much as one player using steroids dangerously provides great economic incentive for others to do the same.

by J (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 2:09am


No one has invincible lawyers, but the NFL position is much stronger than tobacco. Tobacco knew they were causing a physical addiction, and it is well accepted that they actually researched to find a more addictive product in order to boost income.

The NFL is not hiding anything, and it is a choice the player makes. The NFL compensates, by way of relatively high salaries, for these possible risks. Also, the NFL has the backing of the American people and, to some extend, politicians (how else could they get stadium funded by tax payers?).

I feel for those players who do suffer from injury as a result of playing in the NFL; however, the bigger problem is the health of all football players.

Many of the nations top high school football teams have 300+lb offensive linemen. These high school players (and even college) are not compensated, but only have a dream of making the NFL. Seventeen to eighteen year olds should not way 300+lbs - PERIOD. I would rather see states start setting rules regulating high school football, and even college football.

If high School players are smaller...then college players are smaller...then, maybe the NFL players will be smaller.

by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 3:03am

If someone wants to get healthy and lose weight, there will be someone else who would rather make the money (take the risk) and play.

Remind me again how this is different than football coaches who work themselves 20+ hours a day? They could live a healthy lifestyle, but there'll be someone else who would rather make the money (take the risk) and kill themselves.

by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2006 - 3:06am

much as one player using steroids dangerously provides great economic incentive for others to do the same.

Yes. But it's illegal to use steroids. It is not illegal to be fat, even though it is just as dangerous to you.

However, it should also be noted - using steroids is dangerous to other players as well, since it suppresses the immune system. It also diminishes the effectiveness of the drug nature of the steroid, because it's being used for something it's not supposed to (and so the public becomes wary).