NFL considers CFL-width field…but that’s not the key point in improved CFL safety

A fascinating story came out Sunday thanks to Dan Pompei of The Chicago Tribuneand The National Football Post, who reported that the NFL's competition committee has discussed using a bigger field to improve player safety and may do so again in the near future. According to Pompei, the primary consideration under this idea would be widening the NFL field (160 feet across) to something closer to the CFL field (195 feet wide). The CFL field's also 30 yards longer, but that's not as important here, as the NFL executives proposing this (most notably, former Colts' general manager Bill Polian, who built Grey Cup winners in Montreal and Winnipeg before heading south) consider the width of the CFL field to be a factor in reducing severe collisions. Here's what Polian told Pompei:

I’m not so sure we shouldn’t think about widening the field,” former competition committee member Bill Polian said. “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 thinking is a wider field would spread out bodies over more space, reducing hits in the middle of the field. The down the field game wouldn’t change much, but box play could be considerably different.

There is a significant point here. While severe injuries (and concussions in particular) are still a major problem in the CFL, they don't seem to happen quite as regularly as they do in the NFL game. (That's buttressed by quotes in Pompei's piece from both Polian and Warren Moon.) The wider field is quite likely a part of that. It has been credited as a factor by established medical authorities like Dr. Robert Cantu (a senior advisor to the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute), who told me in December that the CFL seems to see less traumatic brain injuries: "It's not that the hits aren't as hard, it's that there aren't as many of them." However, that wasn't the only factor Cantu cited, and the other one he mentioned is perhaps even more important.

That would be the CFL's passing emphasis. Simply put, every running play ends with either the runner being hit or the runner stepping out of bounds (which is rare, especially in the NFL). Those tackles are often big hits, too, as they often involve a running back racing towards the line and a linebacker coming up to meet him; there's plenty of momentum there. Meanwhile, on a passing play, there are plenty of possible outcomes that don't involve a hit at all; the quarterback throwing the ball away, an incomplete pass, or a catch where the receiver steps out of bounds afterwards (much more common than on a running play, as many passes are thrown near the sidelines). Even when there is a hit at the end of a passing play, the momentum involved often lessens the severity of that impact., as the players are often both heading in the same direction rather than racing towards each other.

Consider the difference in blocking in the trenches, too. On a running play, the offensive linemen fire off the ball and collide hard with the defensive line. On a passing play, they're staying in their initial positions or moving slightly back, trying to stop the defensive players from getting to the quarterback. It's no secret the line collisions are much harder on running plays. Thus, a shift towards a more pass-focused game lessens collisions all over the field.

The wider field plays a part in the CFL's passing focus, but the primary reason the ball's thrown more north of the border is that teams have only three downs to advance the ball 10 yards instead of four. If the NFL brought in a wider field but kept its other rules, it would probably see a little more passing given the extra space (and it would see less pure head-on collisions, as players would often be angling towards the sidelines rather than just running straight upfield), but the passing focus still wouldn't become as prominent as it is in the CFL. Another crucial difference to consider between the leagues is the size of the players; CFL types tend to be smaller (partly because of the wider field, partly because of the NFL's hesitancy to utilize smaller players), which also helps reduce collision force. A wider field would probably encourage NFL GMs to bring in a few smaller players, but it's unlikely the NFL would go all the way towards CFL-sized players. Similarly, the NFL has already started being much more pass-focused than it historically was (nine of the top 10 passing seasons by yardage have come from active quarterbacks, and seven of those came in the last two seasons), but it's still not all the way to the CFL level.

Does this mean the NFL shouldn't consider the wider field? Of course not. The wider fields in Canada likely do have an impact on player safety, and player safety is becoming a massive issue in the NFL (the league is currently facing what "may be the most dramatic litigation battle in sports history," with over 4,000 former players suing them). There are obvious challenges to consider here, especially on how wider fields would fit in existing NFL stadiums, but the idea shouldn't be dismissed out of hand; in fact, it could be just one of the many innovations that's progressed to the NFL from the CFL. However, it's going way too far to say that the CFL is safe (consider the health issues former CFL players are having), and while it likely is somewhat safer than the NFL brand of football, that's not all because of the wider field.

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