Meeting at a violent impasse
NFL's hope to minimize bone-jarring hits at odds with sport's culture
The hottest news in the NFL this week caused an immediate stir among a handful of Chicago Bears on Tuesday morning.Before it was ever confirmed that the league would levy harsher penalties -- including suspensions -- for hits deemed dangerous and flagrant, Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was exchanging opinions with various teammates in a flurry of phone conversations. The defensive players Urlacher spoke to were incensed by what they considered unfair treatment. The offensive players weren't happy, either; they feared that more defenders would be aiming at their knees when going for big hits instead of their upper bodies.
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As for Urlacher, an 11-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler, his anger swelled every time he heard another report about the league's new stance. Like every other defensive player in the game, he'd spent his entire life playing football one way -- all out. And he'd be damned if he was about to alter that approach."I'm not changing the way I play," Urlacher said. "They're basically saying they want guys to second-guess themselves while they're in the middle of making a play. We've always been taught to play the game full-speed. I just don't see how you can try to change that."
That is one of the biggest questions facing the NFL as it heads into its first weekend with this controversial emphasis on minimizing violent hits. The league has made it clear that such plays -- especially helmet-to-helmet collisions -- will lead to penalties like those recently given to Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson ($50,000), New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather ($50,000) and Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison ($75,000).Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, has said suspensions are likelier for especially egregious collisions, even those inflicted by first-time offenders. In other words, any defender now looking for a kill shot had better consider his bank account before making a move.
The NFL's hope is that this measure will make the game safer, but the real issue facing the league is this: How safe can the league really be these days? Once you get past these current heavy-handed tactics, the players' predictable outrage and all the previous rules changes to improve player security, what you have is a matter of perception. After reviewing four plays over the past weekend, the NFL decided the violence in the game needs further restrictions. Changing the enforcement of rules is one thing, but player reaction indicates that transforming the sport's vicious culture is a much harder goal to accomplish.
Even people who are supporting the league's knee-jerk reaction can relate to the pain of men like Urlacher. Football, as everybody agrees, is a dangerous game. It requires players who are willing to throw their bodies around with reckless abandon, men who understand the inherent risks associated with every snap of the ball. This is why competing with a certain level of tenacity -- playing on the edge, so to speak -- is so vital to success and ultimately survival in the sport.
'How much can you think about in one second?'Football is about three things at its core: intimidation, fear and an unbridled desire to kick another guy's ass. Once you mess with that combination too much, it's like trying to legislate how hard a boxer throws a right hook. The game changes dramatically. "I'm in favor of [the crackdown], but I still want it to be football," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver/return man Micheal Spurlock. "When I turn on my TV and watch a game I don't want to see flag football.'' "If I had a son right now that was playing football, I would definitely switch him over to offense because by the time he gets to the NFL, the offensive players won't even be able to get touched," said Seattle Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy. "That is a joke, but I understand what they are trying to do with safety. You never want to see anybody getting carted off, and I don't think anybody has that intention. I don't play that way. But our game is such an instinctual game [that] sometimes you can't control it."
That attitude is why so many players took issue with how the league doled out those huge fines this week. The only player who clearly crossed the line, according to those interviewed for this story, was Meriweather. When he had a clear shot at Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap during Sunday's game, he intentionally led with his head to break up the pass play. As for the situations involving Robinson and Harrison, the intentions seemed far less vicious than how the league viewed them.
In Robinson's case, he had a chance to hit Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who was running a crossing pattern. Replays showed Robinson's right shoulder and forearm crashing into Jackson on a play that led to concussions for both players.Harrison actually was involved in two separate collisions. On the first, he barreled into Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs on a running play and his helmet banged into the side of Cribbs' helmet. On another, he broke up a pass intended for Mohamed Massaquoi by launching his right shoulder, forearm and the crown of his helmet into Massaquoi's upper body.
Despite the league's punishment, many people have argued that the hits were legal. Those collisions occurred so quickly that it's impossible to expect any defender to slow his reaction in those situations. As Browns safety T.J. Ward said, "You can say 'What were you thinking? What were you thinking?' But how much can you think about in one second?"
"It's hard for both sides because when you see most receivers go up for a ball in the air -- and after they catch it -- most of the times the first thing they do is tuck their head and try to protect themselves," said Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson."You look at a defensive guy and you see a guy jumping at him [and] the first thing they do is tuck their head to protect themselves. I think that's what kind of leads to a lot of it. I don't think they are thinking about the helmet-to helmet contact. Guys are just out there playing."
Where's the concern for trampled would-be tacklers?The larger problem is that those guys are playing with vastly different bodies than the NFL is used to seeing. "The league is more dangerous these days," said Jeff Nixon, a former NFL safety and a national advocacy committee member for the retired players group Fourth and Goal Unites. "When you have 250-pound men who can run 4.5 [40-yard dash times], you're going to have more violent collisions." But Nixon also believes the league must understand that speed and size are only two factors in why the game is creating moments like the ones that emerged last weekend.
"If you're running full-speed at somebody and the other guy is running full-speed as well, you don't have time to think about where your head is supposed to be," he said. "Besides, most guys don't run straight up. They run with a tilt and if they're about the same size, there's a good chance their heads might collide. But if you're a defensive player, you don't want to worry about what you're doing if you're in that position. If you do, it will probably lead to a problem in your play."
That possibility is what is most galling to defenders. They realize that Robinson wouldn't have received a pat on the back had he allowed Jackson to catch that pass. They also understand that nobody is worrying about their safety when a bruising back like the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson runs over them. The reality is that it's harder than ever to get offensive players to the ground and, as Milloy said, it used to be that defenders could do that "by all means necessary."
Now defensive players have to be more mindful of how they approach the game.
Harrison's frustration isn't hard to understand. From the moment they started playing football, defensive players were taught some basic principles about the game.Play fast. Be smart. Attack the football. The one thing that coaches didn't encourage them doing was thinking too much about what was happening around them. Anticipation and reaction is what got the job done. A contemplative nature only put you more at risk for being a second too late when it came time to make a play.
Now that these players are at the highest level of football, even the slightest change in tempo can have dire consequences.Buffalo Bills safety Donte Whitner said, "You try to adjust the game right now and slow down a little bit, you're either going to get beat for a touchdown or somebody's going to get hurt." Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown was just as blunt. "You better hope you're playing for an offensive-minded coach if you play that way," he said. "Because a defensive-minded coach isn't going to want you. He's going to think you're a coward."
The other value in that aggression is that it sets an invaluable tone for the game itself.Brown did just that when he was playing for the Eagles in a 2006 playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. When Saints running back Reggie Bush flared out of the backfield to catch a swing pass early in that contest, Brown charged forward and leveled him. That play silenced a raucous Saints crowd and left Bush cringing on the turf as though he'd been struck by an Escalade. Even though the Eagles lost that game, the Saints knew a victory would have to be hard-won that day.
That kind of hit might have resulted in a costly punishment for Brown under today's new emphasis on the rules, but the pervading sentiment is that there aren't a ton of defenders running around with malicious intentions. For example, when New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard crashed into Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd on Sunday, Leonhard was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit.Although replays revealed that Leonhard had led with his shoulder on the play, he still stood on the sideline watching Lloyd and telling Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, "I didn't try to hurt him."
"We know that everybody's playing a violent game," said Vikings coach Brad Childress. "The rule has not changed appreciably. They're asking you to lower your target zone and our guys understand that. The tough part is when you've got two moving objects, the fact that you can be aiming somewhere and hit somewhere else. Your guys can't slow down playing the game. You always ask them to play fast. You don't ask them to play tentative."
What differences will new rules, fines make?
Most people interviewed for this story said they understand the league's concern about player safety. What they also believe is that the NFL could be using other measures to help its cause.McDaniels said game-day officials might benefit from the use of replay when determining if a helmet-to-helmet hit actually occurred before a player is penalized. Bills safety and NFL Players Association representative George Wilson added that "there has to be a balance of implementation, enforcement and having a play-by-play look at [the hits] and not trying to put them all in the same boat. Because each hit is going to be different based on what the ball carrier does and how the defender engages the ball carrier when he makes the tackle."
Nixon also believes the league needs to get more serious about changing rules concerning protective equipment. If this league really is emphasizing safety, then why is the league so lax on the amount of leg pads players can wear and the use of mouth guards?"They need to start making it mandatory for players to wear mouth guards," Nixon said. "There is a special mouth guard called the Maher that the New England Patriots use to a man. When you get hit in the head, the [jaw] moves in such a way that it can lead to concussions. But the NFL won't make that decision because doing so would mean they're admitting guilt for not having done so sooner."
As long as people get up, I'm fine with the way things are. When we get to the point where somebody dies because of a big hit, that's when I'll say we need to change something about how we play this game.” -- Cleveland Browns DB Sheldon Brown
The need for greater perspective also is vital here. This entire issue is being fueled by what happened on one Sunday and that is what drives players like Urlacher crazy."If they can do this to us, then they need to get rid of the high-low blocks by offensive linemen," he said. "A blown-out knee can be a pretty serious injury, too. But concussions are the big deal in the NFL right now. So that's what they're going to emphasize." Still, the question remains whether this new emphasis will make a difference. The league wants that -- "We hope the message is clear," Anderson, the NFL executive, said recently -- but it can't stop players from growing bigger and faster. It also can't expect coaches to reward defenders who don't play aggressively and blow plays in the process. And it certainly can't assume that stiffer penalties will undo a lifetime of training for all defenders. The NFL built its brand on the same violence it now wants to distill. The problem is that it's too late to alter what the game has become. "The NFL is not for everyone," said Fox analyst John Lynch, who was one of the league's hardest hitters during his 16-year career as a safety. "A lot of guys have the ability, but they may not have the will or the stomach for it. It's a violent sport, it just is. This is a dangerous situation. You don't want to hurt the integrity of the game. The truly egregious hits -- like Meriweather's -- should be addressed. But not every hit." "The NFL is the No. 1 sport for a reason," added Brown. "Fans love violence. I like to see it, too, because I know the courage it takes to be involved in some of those plays. "But as long as people get up, I'm fine with the way things are. When we get to the point where somebody dies because of a big hit, that's when I'll say we need to change something about how we play this game."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com. ESPN.com's NFL Blog Network bloggers Tim Graham, James Walker, Paul Kuharsky, Bill Williamson, Matt Mosley, Kevin Seifert, Pat Yasinskas and Mike Sando contributed to this report.
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