Bigger is better, but also worse
Bigger players mean a lot of things for football. First, more mass means more force - the bigger the players are, the more dangerous their collisions are. Research has uncovered the long-term dangers of repeated head trauma, and while it's likely that these sorts of injuries have been around since the beginning of football, Potteiger says, bigger players certainly aren't making it better.
But the effect of heavier players goes beyond physical injury like broken bones, or concussions. Heavier people have higher blood pressure, higher risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders like diabetes. One study looked at 510 retired NFL players and found that nearly 60 percent of linemen had metabolic syndrome, while non-linemen were far closer to the national average of about 23 percent. In the NCAA, 48.6 percent of linemen had at least three risk factors for metabolic syndrome during.
Many of the risks of being that big don’t show up during a player’s career, either. During the season, while big, most of these players are fit - they exercise and lift weights, they're monitored by training staff, and they perform on the field. Shaun Rogers, a offensive tackle with the New Orleans Saints, weighs 350 pounds. But he can also run a 40 yard dash in 5.3 seconds. It's after their career ends, Potteiger says, when many of these players might find themselves saddled with the repercussions of their weight. Many have trouble slimming down in retirement, and a study of former NFL players found that football retirees have a higher rate of arthritis than the average population.
Which raises the question of the NFL's responsibility to those bigger players once their career ends. "For 3-5 years they've told these players to gain weight, gain weight, get bigger, get bigger," says Potteiger, "and now they have cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure." The NFL has committed $30 million dollars to research into the long-term effects of head injuries, but they're largely silent about the metabolic troubles that all that increased weight can bring on. There's little in the way of help for players to slim down after their careers - and for people who have spent 20 years getting big, breaking those habits is hard. "If NFL players and college players are encouraged to gain all this body weight, doesn't the league have some level of responsibility to help that individual lose weight and become more healthy after their career is over?" Potteiger asks.
The future football star
Of course, there is a limit to just how big players can get. No one is sure what the upper physical limit is, but Potteiger thinks we're close. "At some point in time, they can only get so big, and I've got to believe that we're getting close to that upper limit." As players approaching 350 pounds, it's hard to imagine a much heavier team being able to keep up.
There's also more to football than just being the biggest on the field, says Potteiger. "You can't just take 11 physical specimens and put them out there on defense and expect them to do well." Which is something, he says, that many coaches seem to have forgotten in the race for size. As coaches look for a physical match for their opponents, they overlook players who might be smaller, but smarter. "Often what I hear is coaches or general managers will talk about the physical abilities of the players," Potteiger says, "and there's physical ability there, but yet they aren't very good at playing the game."
The future of football doesn't have to be a battle of giants though. If a team were to break from the arms race, and assemble an offense of smaller, smarter and quicker players, they could throw the league for a loop. That's essentially what that Washington Redskins did the early ’80s when Charlie Brown, Alvin Garrett and Virgil Seay - three small wide receivers all around 5' 9" - helped the Redskins win the Super Bowl. These little receivers – nicknamed “The Smurfs” – were smaller, but quicker than the defensive backs they were playing. The type of offense a team plays could also break the bigger-is-better tradition. A coach who came straight from a college system, like Chip Kelly who left the University of Oregon to be head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, could bring with him a fast paced offensive style, and some of the biggest players might soon find themselves outpaced.
But Potteiger isn't holding his breath for any of that to happen. "I think it will continue to be like an arms race," he says. "Teams will continue to look for the biggest and the best athletes." It's simple math, really. Aaron Gibson, who retired in 2004, was 6' 6" and 440 pounds - possibly the biggest player ever. King Dunlap, currently with the Eagles, is 6 '9" and 330 pounds (that's just four inches shorter than Shaquille O'Neill, and five pounds heavier). And in just a few weeks, when the Ravens face off against the 49ers in the Super Bowl, the two teams will have a combined 26 players over 300 pounds. So for the time being, the motto of the NFL still seems to be "go big or go home."