NFL Careers Found to be Shortening on Average

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Stud­ies have shown that the aver­age length of NFL careers has short­ened over time as opposed to extending

By Hec­tor Cruz-Rodriguez

Jour­nal­ism 2001

May 2021


Due to advance­ments in exer­cise sci­ence and a greater aware­ness of injury, Amer­i­can foot­ball play­ers’ careers have been found to be short­er on aver­age in the last 20 years.

Cleve­land Browns’ Odell Beck­ham Jr. (13) is exam­ined dur­ing the first half of an NFL foot­ball game against the Cincin­nati Ben­gals. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


With play­ers such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees con­tin­u­ing their stel­lar careers into their 40s, one would nat­u­ral­ly come to the con­clu­sion that NFL-lev­el ath­letes are enjoy­ing longer careers. 

How­ev­er, due to a mul­ti­tude of advances and changes, stud­ies have shown that play­ers are often retir­ing ear­li­er on average.

Since 2008, the aver­age career length of a quar­ter­back has dropped from six years to just over three years, accord­ing to a study done by the Wall Street Jour­nal in 2016.

Accord­ing to’s data, the aver­age career length, as of the 2018–19 sea­son, was around two and a half years.

A prin­ci­pal fac­tor in decid­ing to “call it quits” ear­ly has been the ongo­ing stud­ies and con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing con­cus­sions, and the pro­to­cols the league has recent­ly put in place

In 1994, the same year the league for­mal­ly began inves­ti­gat­ing the effects of con­cus­sions, the Nation­al Insti­tute for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health report­ed a sig­nif­i­cant increase in the per­cent­age of neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders among ex-NFL players.

One com­mon neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­ease among play­ers is chron­ic trau­mat­ic encephalopa­thy, or CTE. This dis­ease has been linked to repeat­ed blows to the head, which is extreme­ly com­mon in football.

CTE has also been found to get worse over time, and often leads to dementia. 

Even with the build­ing con­tro­ver­sy, the NFL has gone to great lengths to prove that the effects of CTE aren’t as preva­lent, or dan­ger­ous, as many stud­ies have shown it to be.

While they launched the “Play Smart. Play Safe.” ini­tia­tive in 2016, the league also promised to become one of the biggest back­ers for con­cus­sion research, with a report­ed $100 mil­lion being reserved for studies.

In 2017, the league was found to have only fund­ed one study, con­duct­ed by an Aus­tralian researcher who had gone on record sev­er­al times before then, describ­ing CTE as “car­ry-on and hoo-hah.”  That same year, the New York Times report­ed that a neu­ropathol­o­gist exam­ined 111 brains of deceased NFL play­ers, and only one was found to not have CTE. 

New York Times graph on num­ber of CTE cas­es by position

CTE was found to be most com­mon among line­men, while place-kick­ers and pun­ters only had one case each. 

Spe­cial teams posi­tions such as kick­ers and pun­ters, on aver­age, have sub­stan­tial­ly less time on the field as com­pared to the offen­sive or defen­sive line, which would explain the dif­fer­ence in the amount of cas­es between more con­tact-heavy positions.

In a tele­phone inter­view, Car­los Nava, ESPN Deportes reporter, dis­cussed the ongo­ing issues regard­ing the NFL and con­cus­sions in their for­mer players.

“You look at a play­er such as Junior Seau, where his issues went unno­ticed due to the ‘old school’ men­tal­i­ty, and he end­ed up doing what he did because of CTE.”

Car­los Nava, Reporter at ESPN Deportes (cour­tesy of Car­los Nava)

Nava then went on to dis­cuss the advances in tech­nol­o­gy, both on and off the field, to take bet­ter care of the players.

“These play­ers now have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the risks, and as soon as they feel that something’s off, they can be tak­en into a tent and have ini­tial results from a test in min­utes. They know right away if they need to be tak­en out.”

How­ev­er, the “tough” men­tal­i­ty of a foot­ball play­er is still very much present, said Nava.

“I wouldn’t say the men­tal­i­ty is being phased out, but play­ers are cer­tain­ly more aware of what can hap­pen. The big prob­lem is that, unlike oth­er sports, their con­tracts aren’t guar­an­teed. They’re con­stant­ly fight­ing for top spots, and so the will to stay on the team will often over­rule any oth­er feeling.”

The unfor­tu­nate truth for a vast major­i­ty of NFL play­ers is that many face finan­cial hard­ship as lit­tle as two years after step­ping off the gridiron. 

In com­par­i­son to oth­er major sports leagues such as the NBA and MLB, NFL con­tracts do not have guar­an­teed mon­ey, so the amount of mon­ey they make depends on whether or not they play, and play well.

Richard Levy, for­mer offen­sive tack­le for the New York Giants and San Fran­cis­co 49ers, talked in a phone inter­view about going through his years in both pro­fes­sion­al and col­lege foot­ball, and his expe­ri­ence with hav­ing to

Richard Levy (right) blocks against UCF line­man Thomas Niles (left) (AP Photo/John Raoux)

“relearn” how to tackle.

“With my posi­tion, there were meet­ings about improp­er ways of lead­ing with your hel­met, tack­ling high, head­but­ting instead of tack­ling, form tack­ling, stuff like that.”

Besides the team resources and doc­tors, Levy said many play­ers often hire oth­er per­son­al train­ers in order to main­tain shape through the off­sea­son, even with no restric­tions in place regard­ing using team doc­tors dur­ing this time.

“If you want­ed extra care, a lot of it was there, free of charge. Acupunc­ture, cup­ping, they had these things avail­able to you, but if you want­ed to get more assis­tance, you were more than wel­come to.”

James Morais, recent Berlin High School grad­u­ate and for­mer defen­sive tack­le for the BHS Red­coats, spoke in a phone inter­view about the more recent strate­gies for teach­ing new play­ers on how to tack­le properly.

“Some kids already had some expe­ri­ence com­ing from mid­dle school, like me, but a lot of them had nev­er even picked up a foot­ball, or tak­en a tack­le, in their lives up to that point… we had to make sure they weren’t gonna get seri­ous­ly hurt. We had a lot of train­ing in the begin­ning that revolved around mak­ing sure your shoul­der was the first thing to make con­tact, not the top of your head.”

Morais went on to say that the biggest thing that the coach­es want­ed play­ers to watch out for was hel­met-to-hel­met contact. 

“Not only was it essen­tial to watch out for because of the new rules, but we also want­ed to make sure that play­ers could actu­al­ly walk off the field after a game, and be able to play again the next week,” Morais said.

“Even with these new hel­mets that my school invest­ed in, get­ting a knock on your head was absolute­ly no joke.”

The oth­er main fac­tor in the aver­age career short­en­ing is the over­all advance­ments that have been made in exer­cise sci­ence, and the over­all aware­ness that more play­ers have grown to have recently.

While the men­tal­i­ty in play­ers may not be shift­ing, the train­ing staff is quick­ly evolv­ing as new tech­niques are dis­cov­ered, in order to take bet­ter care of the players.

In a phone inter­view, Mike DeAn­ge­lo, man­ag­er of ESPN Well­ness, talked about the advances in per­son­al train­ing in the NFL, and how out­liers like Tom Brady have been able to stay in NFL quar­ter­back shape at 43. 

Brady’s exer­cise meth­ods revolve around “pli­able mus­cles,” as opposed to flex­i­ble mus­cles. Pli­able mus­cles are soft in com­par­i­son to dense flex­i­ble mus­cles, and can be trained to absorb and dis­perse the force of a hit easier.

Mike DeAn­ge­lo after fin­ish­ing the 2010 Prov­i­dence Marathon (cour­tesy of Mike DeAngelo)

“His work­out method, the TB12 method, is not any­thing new in the world of exer­cise sci­ence, but it is in the NFL.”

DeAn­ge­lo talked about how an old-school men­tal­i­ty was also plagu­ing strength and con­di­tion­ing coaches.

“More and more teams are start­ing to adopt his (Brady’s) meth­ods in their prac­tices, and if their old-school ‘clean and jerk’ strength and con­di­tion­ing coach oppos­es that, that coach is gone.”

This sig­ni­fies that a change in men­tal­i­ty over­all might be a real­i­ty soon­er rather than later. 

Inter­view with Mike DeAn­ge­lo, cer­ti­fied per­son­al train­er, man­ag­er of ESPN Well­ness, April 17

Inter­view with Car­los Nava, ESPN Deportes reporter,  April 16

Inter­view with Richard Levy, for­mer OT for UConn, NY Giants, 49ers,  April 25

Inter­view with James Morais, for­mer DT for Berlin High School Red­coats, April 27