Collier: Science is the key to a safer NFL

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Sporadic reports of poor chemistry inside the Steelers locker room could continue for six months or more, or roughly until the minute the club actually plays a football game, but the more urgent matter in league circles continues to be another subject few of us were any good at in high school.

Not chemistry, but physics.

I know little about physics and considerably less about chemistry, but after covering the NFL for more than three decades, I'm pretty sure physics is a lot more important, at least relative to wins and losses.

Coaches, for example, who are consumed by the whole winning/losing continuum, are way more interested in the force generated by someone's mass times that same someone's acceleration (F=ma) than about whether the individual retires to a fractured or stressed or stress-fractured locker room at the end of the workday.

Coaches, it could be argued, have exalted the physics of football over team chemistry to such an extreme that the NFL now finds itself at the advent of radical changes just to keep the game from being, um -- what's the term? -- lethal.

So at this month's NFL owners meetings, improved player safety is in for another round of serious discussion, including, as has been reported, the notion that the field itself should be made larger, and thus better to reduce the force generated by massive, accelerating bodies trained to collide with hot menace.

I know, it sounds preposterous.

My advice: Don't make the field bigger. Make the players smaller. Don't make the field wider. Make the players narrower.

You scoff. That's right, I can hear you.

But hear me out.

Take Tavon Austin, the multiple-threat wideout from West Virginia University who last week wowed so many NFL students with his speed and athleticism at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Austin is 5 feet 8 and weighs 174 pounds. In other words, he was half the size of some of the players at the combine, and yet he might have emerged as the all-around best player in the draft.

How do we know this?

"I think I'm the all-around best player in the draft," he said.

Yeah, you don't have to take my word for it.

I've never seen Austin play, but at 5-8 and 174, I'm willing to bet he's a more exciting player than, say, Casey Hampton, who's twice as big and then some. An NFL made up mostly of players closer to Austin's size could create more space, more electricity and probably a safer environment for everybody, in this view.

Unfortunately, half a century ago or more, football coaches made it clear they preferred the larger creatures. Austin might still be highly useful, but coaches prefer a specimen such as Arkansas running back Knile Davis, who covered 40 yards at the combine in a staggering 4.37 seconds while carrying 227 pounds. They prefer defensive ends like SMU's Margus Hunt, who is 6-8 and 277, just as they prefer offensive tackles up to 350 pounds, mastodons whose displacement is such that some of them could have been the target of the famous Rodney Dangerfield line about someone he hit with his car.

"Why didn't you go around me?" asked the victim.

"I didn't think I had enough gas."

The result is the kind of sickening, concussive collisions that have Roger Goodell and his battalions of lawyers pressing the owners to come up with something to improve safety (i.e. reduce the league's liability) in the long term.

Obviously, some solutions that have been advanced are less plausible than others, and frankly, it should be satirically clear that NFL players are not going to get smaller. Similarly, it's unlikely you'll see the elimination of kickoffs, the elimination of the three-point stance, the elimination of the facemask, or the elimination of certain persons who just love to hurt other persons.

But the bigger field idea might get legs.

Some NFL executives first contended that a field 35 feet wider would only produce more violence, as some of the athletes might generate greater force in longer pursuits, an argument that might be quantifiable through some quantum formulas related to gravity or net force.

Or something.

But it was interesting what veteran NFL exec Bill Polian told the National Football Post: "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 Canadian Football League experience. There are less collisions of that type in the CFL."

In the CFL, the field is 190 feet wide compared to the NFL's 160. The end zones are 20 yards deep instead of 10. In the CFL, the defense lines up a yard off the line of scrimmage, not head-to-head as in the NFL. In Canada, there are either a lot fewer concussions or a lot fewer lawyers.

Don't be surprised if the bigger field comes to a stadium near you. With less available space beyond the sidelines, however, certain precautions will become necessary. You won't want to see a pile-up, for example, at the intersection of Dallas Cowboy and Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.

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Gene Collier: First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM


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