Commentary

Hard hits will keep coming

Helmet-to-helmet collisions can never be completely eliminated from a violent game

Originally Published: October 18, 2010
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson's collision with Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson on Sunday was incredible. Steelers linebacker James Harrison's punishing hit on Browns jack-of-all-trades Josh Cribbs was awesome. Likewise for the shot Harrison gave receiver Mohamed Massaquoi later in Sunday's contest.

I loved and was completely enthralled by every one of those violent encounters and I'm not afraid to admit it. That is the essence of this sport we all adore called football. My guess is that deep down the vast majority of people out there feel the exact same way, whether they would confess to it publicly or not.

I imagine that for a lot of people those types of vicious collisions are a lot like the car wrecks that occur in a NASCAR race. They generate a tremendous amount of excitement when they occur, and the mere possibility that something like that can and sometimes does take place in these sports creates a palpable sense of urgency and maybe even a dash of tension that is intoxicating.

For me, the physicality of football and what that represents have always been more interesting than a great catch by a receiver or a tremendous run by a back. Don't get me wrong, I love big plays as much as the next fan. Just not as much as a huge hit.

And while my first reaction is always one of pure ecstasy, it is always followed immediately by concern for all parties involved. Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt, especially if the injury sustained is to something as important as one's brain.

That's because the more information that comes out about concussions, the scarier it gets. I know. I've been to fundraisers and listened to presentations from people such as Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute, one of the groups that is doing research to help spearhead the NFL's policies in this area. The long-term effects of concussions have not been completely identified yet, but the results so far are certainly not good.

I know a lot of players who are glad we are learning more about concussions and how to treat them. Because I have relatively short arms, which made it difficult at times to engage with defenders, I would often use my head as a weapon. I can still recall one of the equipment guys offering me the opportunity to wear one of the newer, lighter helmets later in my career. I scoffed.

"No thanks," I told him, "Give me the heaviest one you got."

I have a large and, in NFL parlance, "hard" head and I often used it like a battering ram, especially when I was freed up and able to help out one of my linemates in pass protection or when I was going up to the second level to take on a linebacker. The more I read and the more people I talk to, the more I realize how dumb that was, but I didn't know any better. Frankly, I don't know if I could have survived without using my head like that, and I often think about how I would play now, knowing the things that I do.

After a Sunday like we just saw, there will be an overreaction of sorts as a result of the aforementioned big hits and the one that Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather laid on Ravens tight end Todd Heap. I guess that's a natural reaction, as well, but I don't know that helmet-to-helmet contact can or should ever be completely legislated out of the game.

For one, I think the NFL already has taken significant steps to protect the players in this regard. Helmet-to-helmet hits against defenseless receivers are being penalized more than they ever were just five or six years ago, though admittedly some still go unflagged. Likewise, players are being fined on a much more frequent and significant basis than ever before. Jets safety Eric Smith was fined $50,000 and suspended for one game after his hit on then-Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin in 2008. (By the way, here are NFL rules on unnecessary roughness.)

There will not be a sea change in this regard overnight. Every week there are players who attempt to follow the new rules and guidelines that prohibit hitting defenseless receivers and roughing the passer. Even so, these players have been brought up through the lower levels playing this way, and it is folly to expect them to be able to just disregard the way they have been engineered to play the game. It will take time, but things can and have been getting better, whether Week 6 in the NFL was indicative of that or not.

Besides, it is not as if these players are consciously trying to deliver a helmet-to-helmet blow. That is very rare. More often, they are just trying to deliver a crushing blow, and since their heads are right in the middle of their shoulders, helmet-to-helmet collisions are going to occur. That doesn't mean they shouldn't try to use their shoulders to strike an opponent, but given the extreme speed at which the game is played, players are still going to take blows to the head.

Pro football is a violent game played by violent men. Blows to the head are an occupational hazard that we can attempt to avoid, knowing full well that we will never completely accomplish that goal. The NFL can increase the suspensions and the amount of the fines, and that may speed up the process of change, but it will never completely eliminate the problem.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.