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The NFL Debates How Badly Players Can Be Jacked Up by Lloyd Vance

 

After Week 6’s headshot fest, if some people around the NFL have their way… ‘Jacked Up’ hits, like this one delivered by former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins on TE Alge Crumpler in the 2004 NFC Championship Game, may soon draw more than a fine

After a weekend where the National Football League saw an unprecedented number of head injuries, i.e. Concussions , caused by some extremely hard hits. The entire league including officials, players, media and fans were talking about what to do to protect players better from devastating hits. 

The four biggest collision hits that were deemed “flag worthy” by the league — or as ESPN used to glorify, where guys getting “Jacked Up”.  Were Falcons DB Dunta Robinson knocking himself and Philadelphia Eagle WR DeSean Jackson out on a bang-bang play; Steelers LB James Harrison knocking out Cleveland Browns WR/RB Joshua Cribbs on a running play and on another play sending WR Mohamed Massaquoi to the sidelines for a good bit after a head shot; and New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather’s blatant helmet-to-helmet big shot on Baltimore Ravens TE Todd Heap.

Concussions, which have been the NFL’s biggest hot button topic – especially after congress got involved last year – were plentiful in Week 6.  Players Jackson, Robinson, Cribbs, Jaguars QB David Garrard, and Redskins TE Chris Cooley all suffering the league’s most dreaded injury.  So now the league in “protecting” the shield is talking tough about big hits. The cases of Massaquoi, Heap, and Jackson drew the most ire as at least two of them involved helmet-to-helmet contact to “defenseless” receivers, which is a big no-no since the NFL beefed up the defenseless receiver rule before the 2009 season.  The rule — which some say was in response to 2008 “flagged” hits on WR’s Wes Welker and Anquan Boldin” — states that a defender must have two feet on the ground before contact to the head. 

Almost before Sunday’s 1 PM and 4 PM EST games were completed varying shots were fired from both sides of the “devastating” hit debate.  Immediately I was receiving emails and texts saying, “Put flags on these guys, because football is too soft” or on the other side, “Football is becoming too violent and the league needs to step in”.  The situation got so bad that NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson, i.e. “The Fine Man” had to go on the offensive. 

On the “Mike and Mike” Show on ESPN Radio, Anderson said, “We need to get our players firmly in line with the current rules”.  He added when talking about defenseless players, “What we’re trying to make sure our players understand is that you should know the rules.  The coaches know the rules, the players should know the rules. And so if you are in violations of the rules — particularly one of those trying to protect against head, neck injuries — we’re going to hold you to a higher standard.”  However lastly Anderson said there is no intent to change any rules. “We are just going to enforce the existing rules much more to the letter of the law so we can protect our players”.

“We understand this is not just about the NFL,” Anderson said. “This is about safety at our level, at the college level, at the high school level, at the pee-wee level, because we are the standard bearer and we are committed to safety at the highest level.  “So we will take all the criticism and all the backlash against those that say we are acting too aggressively in this regard. We are not going to be apologetic. We are not going to be defensive about it. We are going to protect our players and hopefully players at the lower levels as well by example.”

Trust me as someone that has gotten to know a lot of current and former players over the years, I am all about “Player Safety” and trying to preserve football players’ health long-term.  However I think many members of the media and fans are being too over reactive  in regards to big hits.  Yes, there were players laid out everywhere in Week 6, but too often these types of bone-crunching hits are too hard to evaluate in live action to call them “dirty”.  You cannot blame a defender for trying to make a play in a split second especially when separating a receiver from the ball. 

In the game that I was paying particular attention to, the Eagles-Falcons, I clearly thought that Robinson was not intentionally trying to knockout Jackson.  He led with his shoulder pads and it was a quick bang-bang play where the former Pro Bowl corner could not stop his forward motion.  Unfortunately both players laid on the ground for some time before they were helped off and neither did not return.  As outrage filled the Philadelphia area and Robinson was being painted as a “dirty” player, I thought it was ridiculous given the speed of the play.  I even had to chastise one hypocritical Eagles’ fan who I had to remind that he was the same guy who celebrated former Eagles corner Sheldon Brown’s big hit that “Jacked Up” Saints running back Reggie Bush in the 2006 NFL Playoffs.

Fox contributor and former head of officials Mike Pereira said in explaining the Robinson-Jackson hit,   “Jackson is considered defenseless as the pass was incomplete, and as a defender, Robinson is not allowed to lower his head and contact Jackson anywhere on his body. I’m not sure what you tell a defender to do in that situation, but we have to avoid these types of hits that create the injuries that result from them”. Pereira closed the topic by saying, “The NFL will continue to look at these types of actions to try to eliminate these injuries. Robinson and others are going to have to lead with their shoulders and not their heads.”

Giving the officials the leeway to suspend/eject players for big hits is going to open a firestorm of “subjective” calls.  The NFL needs to relax as big non-helmet-to-helmet hits occur on almost every play and they have been part of the fabric of football since the game was created in the late 19th century.  I can still remember talking to former Falcons veteran safety Lawyer Milloy after the Falcons-Eagles game in October 2008 where he had been flagged for a hard hit on a “defenseless” TE LJ Smith on a bang-bang play.   Milloy was flagged 15-yards for unnecessary roughness  on a big hit over the middle where he used his shoulders mostly to knock the ball away from Smith.  Milloy said, “It happened so fast that I couldn’t stop my momentum and I was just playing the game hard”.   The former University of Washington hitter was not fined by the NFL for the hit, but it showed the “skewed” nature of officials calling penalties for big hits.

However the one hit from Week 6 that everyone can agree on as excessive and cannot be tolerated was Meriweather’s hit on Heap.  Anderson said of the blatantly late helmet-to-helmet hit that landed the former University of Miami star in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s doghouse (i.e. the bench for a few plays), “That in our view is something that was flagrant, it was egregious.”  Anderson added, “And effective immediately, that’s going to be looked at a very aggressive level, which could include suspension without pay.”  Anderson also made it a specific point to accentuate the fact that game officials have the authority to eject players in those situations, if warranted.

So after a 24-hour firestorm of sports talk, the NFL came out strong with $175K worth of fines in hopes of changing player’s minds. James Harrison was fined $75K for his two hits on Browns’ players – already had been under the league’s microscope for body-slamming Titans QB Vince Young in Week 2; Plus Meriweather and Robinson received $50K fines for their infractions.  In addition, the NFL when presenting the fines also planted the seed of possible ejections/suspensions for big hits.  Greg Aiello, the NFL senior vice president of public relations said, “Fair warning needed to be given to players and clubs before increased discipline starts to include game suspensions.  A communication will go to the clubs, coaches, and players tomorrow about the increased discipline for violations of player safety rules.”

We will see if the ejection/suspension threats are merely tough talk and can change the way the game is played.  As NFL players have still played with a hard-hitting style for decades despite fines.  Former New England Patriots thumper turned NBC Football Analyst Rodney Harrison, who received more than $200,000 in fines in his career, gave a great story about the fines he accumulated for his hard-hitting style.  He said, “I used to set aside $50,000 before the start of each season to pay fines for big hits”.   That quote shows that Harrison and the rest of the NFL’s hard-hitters know exactly how much their tough-hitting style was going to cost them in playing to win and they are okay with it.  Some are saying that Harrison didn’t learn his lesson until he was finally suspended for 1-game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jerry Rice.  I guess not being able to be on the field to help his team win was the final impetus to make Harrison change his hitting style to stay on the field.  And ejection/suspension may indeed be what it takes to reel-in today’s hard hitters.

Call me crazy, but I do believe in the NFL’s 91 years of existence that “Devastating Hits” have always been celebrated.  I can still remember reveling in the Eagles’ late ‘80s/early ‘90s safety combo of Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins laying receivers out.  Remember Hopkins setting the tone in the infamous “House of Pain” game on December 7, 1991 in the Houston Astrodome where he laid out Ernest Givens and later received a $7500 fine for the hit… but I digress.  Some of the biggest names in professional football’s history including HOFer’s Deacon Jones, Butkus, Lott, Blount, Larry Wilson, Night Train Lane, and others, were celebrated for being fierce intimidating hitters.  These guys had  the ability to knock a guy into next week and everyone loved it – the NFL Films even used produce videos call “Crunch Course” that were hugely popular. 

You can call me a “Narcissist” all you want…but almost all contact sports fans love the brute force of the pros and are drawn to it .   Remember how quickly a circle would form and sides would be taken on the playground when someone yelled, “Fight, Fight”.   Like it or not… people like the big hits of the NFL — just like the Ancient Rome’s Gladiators, NHL Fights, WWE, MMA, Boxing, etc.  “Player Safety” aside, we all love to watch the tough guys of the NFL, because these guys have the “guts” to play in the hit or be hit world of the greatest league on Earth.  

Hopefully the league will try not to impose themselves too much into the equation and NFL football can remain the hard-hitting game that we all love.  When I talked to former 9-year NFL veteran safety Robert Massey about the whole NFL cracking down on big hits situation he said that understood “player safety”.  But Massey added, “Hitting is a big part of the gameYou don’t want to take away the ‘Beauty of the Game’ which is hitting and intimidation”.   What I believe Massey was saying was that hard hits are part of the gamesmanship of the NFL and the brotherhood of players understand that risk.

I am not even sure if fines and penalties are going to deter devastating hits in the NFL.  To the dismay of Pereira, the NFL’s former hot button penalty (horse-collar tackles) increased during the 2008 season even after the league place an emphasis on them — 24 horse-collar tackles called in ’08 as opposed to 12 in ’07.  We will have to wait to see if “Devastating Hits” will fall by the wayside.  Like past NFL big stories ‘SpyGate’ and the Wildcat, but for now get used to everyone talking about the league legislating big hits on “defenseless” players.

You know the NFL is going to be vigilant or is it “reactive” in making sure that players are safe, especially the “Golden Boys” (Quarterbacks and Receivers).  So as former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan used to say, “They should just put flags on offensive players and get it over with”. 

But c’mon let the defensive guys play hard too! Can anyone please tell me if the same kind of uproar would have been heard if a couple defensive lineman were lost to chop blocks and zone blocking knee-diving schemes…you already know the answer.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

“NFL looks like the league that cried wolf by not suspending a player after being so aggrieved about it.”  – Peter King on Twitter

“Henceforth, unless a Merriweather-type hit earns you a week off, NFL will be guilty of talking big but not following through with action” – Don Banks on Twitter

Sports Ilustrated’s Top 10 biggest hitters from a couple of years ago http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0707/top10.hitters.today.nfl/content.1.html

Checkout some of these YouTube NFL Big Hits including some from when the league “promoted” crunching shots

NFL Crunch Course – part 1 of 5 — www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOBOxxxKNXQ

Sheldon Brown Jacked Up Steven Jackson — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3c5jwoWPRpI&feature=related

Brian Dawkins: BIG HITS!!!! — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suYFi8zW6pE&feature=fvst

DAWKINS kills Crumpler — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5ApFRBpdf8

NFL’s Most Bone Crushing Hits — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXLOHF71L_c&feature=related

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and Sports Journey Network , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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