T. J. Ward went low … and collided with Rob Gronkowski’s knee. (Elise Amendola / AP)

Despite an increased level of awareness about the short- and long-term dangers of head injuries from playing football, former players throughout the fall were vocal about saying they’d rather be hit in the head than in the legs.

A concussion can sideline a player for a few weeks, a hit to the legs can end his season or even his career. “I’d rather have a guy hit me head than knife at my knee,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said last summer when Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller suffered a season-ending knee injury on a hit by D.J. Swearinger of the Houston Texans. “You’re talking about a career-ending injury. It’s going to be so hard for Dustin to come back off of that. It should be a fineable offense, just like going for the head is.”

A recent USA Today survey of 293 players on 20 NFL teams showed the same thing: Forty-six percent worry most about knee and leg injuries, 24 percent worry about head and neck injuries and 26 percent worry about none. Nor did players think that rules changes had made the game safer. Fifty-three percent said safety was about the same, 39 percent said changes had made it safer and eight percent said it was less safe.

There were plenty of examples during the season, but perhaps the highest profile injury occurred to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose season ended in early December when he suffered torn ligaments on what was a legal hit by T.J. Ward. That injury showed the dilemma players say they face.

“If I would’ve hit him up high, there’s a chance I was going to get a fine,” Ward said. “It’s kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s a decision you have to make, but you have to follow the rules at the same time. When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen. This can happen if you have those types of situations. It’s pretty much inevitable, and they forced our hand with this one.”

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, told USA Today that the league would study injury date during the offseason. “When we look at the number of injuries and the types of injuries and the breakdown as to when and where and how those injuries occur, that’s going to inform the decision-making in terms of the health and safety measures that we take,” he said. “So if it turns out that the concern that is expressed in your survey is well-founded as we look at the number at the end of the year, then that’s something we’re going to have to address.”

The folks at Simple Therapy took weekly injury report data (via CBS Sports.com) and compiled it in one informative graphic that shows which body parts are at risk for athletes who play an inherently dangerous game:

(Courtesy Simple Therapy)
(Courtesy Simple Therapy)

ESPN conducted a survey of its own, polling 320 players for NFL Nation and found that 85 percent would choose to play in the Super Bowl even if they had a concussion, John Keim reports.

“We are competitors. We want to go out there and entertain. That’s all we are,” Tennessee Titans safety Bernard Pollard, who broke six ribs and continued to play for the Baltimore Ravens in last year’s Super Bowl, said. “We’re entertainers. Guys want to go out there. “They don’t want to let themselves down. They don’t want to let their teammates down. They want to go out there and play, not thinking about, ‘Okay, what can this affect later on down the line?’”