Commentary

Deon Grant details defenders' dilemma

Giants safety: Coaches, scouts want the full-speed aggression the NFL is out to stop

Updated: October 22, 2010, 12:16 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants safety Deon Grant was standing by his locker Thursday, talking about the NFL's controversial announcement this week that, effective immediately, the league was going to more strictly enforce and punish players who push the rules on hitting. And the longer Grant talked, the more his voice occasionally trilled with emotion.

Other Giants stopped to listen. One encouraged Grant, "Tell them how you feel."

Grant knows concussions and player safety are hot-button issues in football. He knows the sad story of how Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was left paralyzed from the neck down last Saturday, just one day before the NFL was rocked by four hits on Sunday that had league officials promising by daybreak Monday that something would be done.

But now put yourself in Grant's real-world position. Bring the issue all the way down to the level of a player like him, who's being asked to change on the fly heading into the biggest divisional game of the season, against his team's biggest rival, under the blazing scrutiny on "Monday Night Football," no less -- all with little information about what's acceptable anymore, just a lot of wariness in his heart.

[+] EnlargeDeon Grant and Dustin Keller
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireSeparating offensive players from the football just got a lot more challenging for Deon Grant and his defensive brethren.

The suits in the league office and outsiders who've resumed bleating about the violence in the game can say what they want. Grant even agrees in principle with a lot of the safety initiatives. But Grant has lasted 11 years in the league -- "11 years" he emphasized Thursday with justifiable pride -- and the hard, cold truth is Grant also knows how the league has always worked down on the field, where he butters his bread. Not surprisingly, he has some legitimate questions.

Like? Grant wonders if coaches, scouts or GMs who rate NFL players are really going to accept less reckless defenders. Or will they still privately judge them by the old, more violent standards?

Are league officials really interested in change or just trying to make the NFL look proactive in the court of public opinion? And if Grant runs toward Cowboys wideout Miles Austin this Monday as Austin is going across the middle, and Grant has the option to deliver the safer kind of hit the NFL prefers or the kind of hit that he's surer will separate Austin from the ball, which bosses should Grant be worried about pleasing -- his coaches or the league?

The guys in neckties can say they worry about player safety. But the guys in chinstraps have to worry about job security, too.

"This is the sad part," Grant said. "If you teach how the NFL is telling us to play to kids in Pop Warner, high school and college, they'll never get drafted. Nev-er. They'd be 'soft.' They'd be questioned coming out of college. They wouldn't even get scholarships. [The scouting report would be] 'Aw, that guy got challenged, and that guy's soft. ... He don't even want to make a tackle. ... He don't really want to even go out there and hit the guy.'"

It's been far too easy lately to condescend and dismiss every NFL player who objects to the league's stricter policy on collisions as some meathead griping about a man's inalienable right to separate another guy from his senses or keep hitting with impunity. This issue is more nuanced and complicated than that.

Grant emphasized Thursday that he's not a dirty player. And that's true. He's a well-respected veteran, a guy who's been a star at every level, a man who chose to major in electrical engineering at Tennessee, not parks & rec. He allows that "some of the calls they make when a guy is not catching the ball and you hit him anyway, I can understand that -- that's just, you know, that's just a butthead play. I'm a defensive player. But that's just a butthead play.

"But when you're talking about a guy who has the ball in his hands, catching the ball, and you've got to separate the guy from the ball using what you've been taught your whole life, what you've been taught at practice?" Here Grant shakes his head. "Coaches tell you, 'Don't slow down!' I mean, if you slow down at practice, you might get a fine or something -- at practice. A coach wants you to finish the play ... not slow down."

Grant also wonders about the NFL's promise that going forward, the heavy fines that were issued this week -- "Fifty thousand? Seventy-five thousand? Some players don't even make that much a game," Grant said -- could now be accompanied by suspensions too. But Grant asks: What if you make an unavoidable mistake, a hit that couldn't be helped? Are you still out of luck?

"We don't play with remotes. That's Madden and Xbox," Grant sighed.

By any measure, Grant has been a laudable success in the NFL. He's a proven commodity in a brutal, Darwinian business where you're only as good as your last game. He fractured a hip in his rookie season, was told by doctors his career was over but came back and started every game the last nine years. His total of 144 consecutive games played is the fifth-longest active streak in the league and the best streak among safeties. But you know what all that got him? Seattle released the 31-year-old Grant this spring rather than pay him the $4 million he was owed this season.

The Giants raved about his leadership and durability when they picked him up. But even they only gave Grant a one-year contract -- again, not guaranteed. And yet he mentioned none of that during his remarks Thursday.

You know what Grant said instead?

"I love this game I play."

Players who make it to the NFL are near-geniuses at adapting. Like Grant, they become expert at learning and doing and training and enduring what it takes to survive. They'll adapt to these latest tackling rule changes, too. They know the worries about injuries and concussions and post-retirement health problems are too sobering to ignore.

But somebody also needs to reassure the players they don't bear the brunt of all this alone. The NFL needs to undergo a cultural change from top to bottom. It needs to change the way players are evaluated, valued and promoted if it wants players to change.

Rolling back some rules to help defenses and limit the many advantages offenses now enjoy would be a good idea, too.

"If you want to be all about the offense going down there and doing what they want to do -- I mean, we already can't touch them past 5 yards," Grant said. "It gotten so bad, we can't even jam them more than one time within 5 yards. Once we touch them within 5 yards, we gotta let 'em go and get them into their route. So why don't they just let 'em put flags on and we can all play flag football?

"I love this game I play," he repeated. "But they're getting too soft.

"The NFL is taking this way too deep."

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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