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Big players a headache for the NFL

Heading into the off-season, the NFL has one big giant headache to address, pardon the pun: Concussions.

Last season, marquee players Ben Roethlisberger, Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook and Kurt Warner, among others, were sidelined with head injuries. It probably contributed to Warner's decision to retire, as it has with other players in recent years.

Worried by such injuries and under scrutiny from Congress, the league is studying brain injuries and potential helmet improvements. Current and former players are being encouraged to donate their brains to science to study the effects of football on the brain (or, in the case of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, to see if some players even have brains).

The league is also studying rules changes in an effort to prevent head injuries.

Too bad they're not going to the real source of their problem.

Rule changes aren't going to help much unless the NFL decides to play two-hand touch or flag football, which is just about what the game has become anyway. They've all but hung a HANDLE WITH CARE sign on quarterbacks and receivers, what with all the rules to protect them from hard hits, and still there are serious head injuries.

They've altered the game dramatically and detrimentally without getting the intended results. At times the situation seems ridiculous — players are expected to tackle large, fast opponents but do it more gently?

And the truth is, there is no helmet now or ever that can prevent concussions for the simple reason that nothing can prevent the brain from bouncing around within the skull upon impact, which is the real cause of concussions.

There is only one thing left to try, and it's an idea so radical and so obvious that the NFL will never consider it: Limit the size of the players.

Think about it: Many of the issues the league has wrestled with and/or legislated against over the years could be at least partly addressed simply by size limits — concussions, protecting quarterbacks and receivers, helmet-to-helmet contact, steroids and drug tests, in-the-grasp rules, rising injury rates, player obesity and related health problems (not to mention shorter life spans), the loosening of holding rules in the interior line, even the 5-yard no-contact cushion given to receivers (which means getting open sooner so quarterbacks can get rid of the ball).

Only 28 years ago, there was just one player in the NFL who weighed more than 300 pounds. As recently as 20 years ago, there were only 28 players who were 300 plus. In 2005, there were 338 of them on opening-day rosters. Nowadays, there are 260-pounders who play quarterback and running back. A couple of decades ago, they were called linemen.

Players aren't just bigger; they're faster. How does that happen — bigger and faster? Undoubtedly, steroids have played a big role. The remarkable growth of NFL players cannot be attributed wholly to better weight training, diet or increased size of the general population.

To make matters worse, most NFL games are played on plastic carpet instead of grass, making the game that much faster.

Do the physics: Newton's 2nd Law says that the net force on an object is equal to the object's mass times the object's net acceleration. Translation: Increased size + increased mass = bigger hits.

The NFL could address many of its problems simply by introducing a weight limit — 250 pounds? 275? Whatever. Maybe they could limit size by position. It's worth consideration.

Think of the advantages. It could reduce injuries across the board, including concussions. It could reduce the impact of hits on quarterbacks and receivers. It could revive the running game, which has virtually disappeared for two reasons: 1) The increased size and speed of players has essentially shrunk the field; 2) the safety-related rules created by the league to protect players from ever bigger and faster opponents have favored the passing attack.

It means many of the players would no longer feel compelled to get bigger, either by gorging themselves on food or by taking steroids or human growth hormone. Maybe the NFL would finally take the steroid problem seriously as well.

Steroids and HGH have had a huge impact on the game, both in terms of injuries, health and the style of the game that is played. While baseball has come under intense scrutiny for steroid use, football has gotten a pass even though its athletes would benefit most from increased size and strength.

A size reduction also could preserve bodies and lives. In 1994, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health studied 7,000 former players and determined that linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population and that their life expectancy is an average of only 52 years, compared to 55 for all NFL players and 78 percent for the general population. This is to say nothing of their problems simply from being overweight — high blood pressure, joint damage, heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea.

Memo to NFL: It's time to lose weight.

e-mail: drob@desnews.com