Players' Positions, Not Prior Injuries, Predict NFL Career Length
To measure longevity in this sport, researchers evaluated orthopedic injuries and health-related conditions in 100 top prospects tested at the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis (2004). Five years later, the team tracked participation by analyzing NFL Players' Association rosters, and calculated longevity for the entire league based on players' positions.
For the 2008 NFL season, 39 percent of the 2004 Combine players were still active. For 1,889 players listed on 32 NFL team rosters, the average longevity was 4.6 years, with only 7 percent of players having experience in the league beyond 10 years. Four of five players with the greatest longevity (>18 yr) were punters or kickers (the other, a rare quarterback).
From these data, the research team discovered orthopedic or health-related factors were not as relevant in predicting longevity. The more prominent factor was where on the field these athletes played.
Specifically, the injuries associated with position showed the strongest link to overall career longevity. Injury locations and diagnoses were shaped by position; for example, offensive lineman had more back and neck injuries while linebackers experienced more shoulder injuries. Most injuries were at the shoulder and knee, with the lower back, neck, foot and ankle also common sites of players' injury history. Tears were the most common type of injury, followed by dislocations, trauma, fractures and sprains.
The authors note there is an opportunity to examine physical and performance factors in further predicting longevity for non-special team players, such as evaluating team productivity and specific position needs, as well as opportunities to modify or measure variables related to the specific player and the coaches with whom they interact.
"This is an interesting time to study professional athletes who are ending their careers or retired," said Pat Lombardi, Ph.D., one of the study's authors. "I think we're familiar enough with the physical toll many of these professional players take during their career, and these studies are helping us narrow in on strategies to maximize their health, mobility and fitness when their playing days end."
Lombardi notes that Milt Davis, Ph.D., an All-Pro defensive back, Rookie- of-the-Year, and NFL Scout for more than 30 years, was primary author for the study and passed away in September 2008 prior to the opportunity to present its outcomes. "During the course of the study, Milt demonstrated that nearly three-fourths of all players had more than two significant injuries, and that one of two had a major surgery prior to entering the NFL," Lombardi said. "Despite this, NFL player position rather than medical history seemed to be a more powerful predictor of longevity."
American College of Sports Medicine
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