NFL Coaches Should Stop Risking Players' Health in Blowout Victories

There's no excuse for key first-stringers like Rob Gronkowski getting injured in garbage time.

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The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, one the NFL's most gifted players on offense, broke his left forearm on Sunday during an extra point attempt with 3:55 left in his team's 59-24 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts. His is a significant injury. The Washington Post reported that Gronkowski's arm will require between four and six weeks of recovery time. That's bad news for the Patriots, of course: He's been an integral part of the Patriots' explosive offense, so his absence could hurt the defending AFC champions down the stretch of a very competitive football season. But it didn't have to be this way. Bill Belichick risked Gronkowski's health by playing him long after the outcome of Sunday's game had been decided.

Belichick's not the only NFL coach who consistently plays his starters late into blowout games, even as this practice continues to perplex levelheaded fans across the country. The reasoning coaches use to defend this tendency goes like this: Because it's impossible to predict whether an opposing team will mount an improbable comeback, keeping first-string players on the field until the final whistle blows is the best way to ensure victory.

That line of reasoning, in and of itself, is unassailable. It is impossible to predict whether a team that is seemingly down for the count will rise off the mat and execute a come-from-behind victory. Keeping star players in the game and continuing to attack until the very end is, in a way, a very sensible strategy. Professional football has seen plenty of remarkable comebacks over the years, and woe will be the coach who one day loses a game because he prematurely pulled his team's starters.

But that reasoning also ignores the fact that at some point in every lopsided contest, a comeback becomes about as statistically probable as a bolt of lightning suddenly incinerating the football. Once that point is reached, it's hard to understand why star players remain on the field, where they are at risk for potentially devastating injuries. After the Patriots scored their final touchdown on Sunday, putting the score at 58-24, it would have taken an act of God for the Colts to eke out a win. Instead of sending Gronkowski into the game as a blocker on the ensuing extra-point attempt, Belichick should have told New England to just take a knee, ensuring no physical contact would occur (of course, this strategy is more dicey when the opponent is the Tampa Bay Bucs).

Statistics matter more than ever in football: There are, for example, precise mathematical methods for determining whether or not a team should go for it on fourth down. So why is there still no way to calculate when exactly the risk of playing starters begins to outweigh the possible rewards? The importance of coaches' qualitative judgments in these situations cannot be overlooked, but having the ability to measure the likelihood of a comeback would help teams defend their leads and the health of their stars.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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