The NFL’s incessant push for player safety could now push the sidelines farther apart.
And that’s not to simply make it harder for the Joe Flaccos of the world to pull a Tommy Lewis. Former NFL G.M. Bill Polian tells Dan Pompei that more field space could reduce high-impact hits.
“I’m not so sure we shouldn’t think about widening the field,” Polian told Pompei. “It’s a radical idea, but I think it’s worth thinking about. You would have more space and perhaps a safer game. I say that based on my CFL experience. There are less collisions of that type in the Canadian game.”
The Canadian field is 35 feet wider than the NFL field — but the CFL gridiron is also longer, with deeper end zones.
Texans G.M. Rick Smith disagrees with the concept. “If you widen the field, you have more high speed collisions,” Smith told Pompei.
Polian disagrees with Smith’s disagreement. “The farther a player has to run in terms of contact, the less ferocious the contact is going to be,” Polian said. “We know the most ferocious hits come from guys who are ten yards apart and lay each other out. You have fewer higher power collisions in the Canadian League than here.”
The idea that distance traveled reduces the impact of the hit depends on how much energy the player still has at the point of impact. If he’s tired when it’s time to lay the lumber, Polian is right. But if the player has achieved and maintained full speed and has enough gas in the tank to deliver a full-power hit, putting the players farther apart will result in more, not less, violent collisions.
That’s why the kickoff has been marginalized. Large, strong men run unimpeded toward each other, achieving full speed. It’s basic physics.
Of course, a wider field doesn’t necessarily entail the same type of contact, since players won’t be running directly at each other when the movement is more horizontal than vertical. Spreading the players out will likely result in fewer gang tackles, which is where the biggest safety benefit could be obtained.
Still, the league’s desire to enhance safety is at all times balanced against the fan’s expectation that the game not appear dramatically different when piped through the cable line. It’s one thing to minimize high-impact helmet-to-helmet hits; it’s quite another to try to minimize all high-impact hits.
Ultimately, the players should have a voice in this. If the risks they gladly assume to play pro football include operating within a 53-yard window, then why widen the field?