NFL might suspend players for hits

Updated: October 19, 2010, 1:46 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- Aiming for the head or leading with the helmet to deliver a blow could soon cost NFL players game time as well as money.

The league is considering suspending players for illegal hits in an effort to help prevent serious injuries, NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated Press on Monday, one day after several scary collisions in games.

"There's strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits," he said in a phone interview. "Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension."

Anderson, a member of the league's competition committee and one of its loudest voices on the need for enhanced player safety, said the NFL could make the changes immediately, with Commissioner Roger Goodell's approval. League officials would consult with the players' union, but he didn't expect any opposition.

"Obviously suspensions would be a much bigger deal than fining guys," said Colts center Jeff Saturday, the team's player representative. "But if guys are headhunting out there to knock a guy out of the game, that's the only way to take care of it."

Giants coach Tom Coughlin agrees that fines alone don't seem to be enough to prevent illegal hits.

"I know that one of the recommendations or the strongest one has been that since the money does not seem to be a deterrent, then it has to be more than that," Coughlin told ESPNNewYork.com on Monday. "Always, it is quite frustrating, to be honest with you, if a player is forced to leave a game because of an illegal hit and the other player continues. ... That doesn't really seem right. I'm sure there will be stronger measures taken."

On Sunday, the Eagles' DeSean Jackson and the Falcons' Dunta Robinson were knocked out of their game after a frightening collision in which Robinson launched himself head first. Both sustained concussions.

[+] EnlargeDeSean Jackson
AP Photo/Mel EvansDeSean Jackson's severe concussion was at the forefront of several head injuries Sunday, leading the NFL to suggest suspensions may follow.

Ravens tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather that Heap called "one of those hits that shouldn't happen." The team was in contact with the league about the tackle.

"The thing we try to coach our players to do is basically hit in the strike zone," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Try to make an effort to do that and keep your head out of it. It's not just the safety of your opponent, it's safety for yourself. When you throw your head in there like that you put yourself at risk. It's just not good football."

Steelers linebacker James Harrison sidelined two Browns players with head injuries after jarring hits. An NFL spokesman said one of the tackles, on Josh Cribbs, was legal. The Browns were more upset about Harrison's hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, which the league is reviewing.

"The one against Mohamed was illegal," Browns tight end Benjamin Watson said. "I can't judge his character, I can judge his conduct. It was an illegal hit. He led with his head. He hit Mo right in the head. He dove at his head. Whether he meant to hurt him or not, I can't comment on that. It was illegal and the league should take care of him with the max, whatever it is."

Harrison defended those hits after the game.

"If I get fined for that, it's going to be a travesty," Harrison said. "They didn't call [a penalty] on that. There's no way I could be fined for that. It was a good, clean legit hit. ... I didn't hit that hard, to be honest with you. When you get a guy on the ground, it's a perfect tackle."

Anderson wouldn't speculate on how many players would be punished for hits from Sunday's games. Players also can be ejected from games for illegal hits, but that's rare.

It's also a part of the game the league has outlawed. As far back as 2007, NFL officials were told to eject players for such flagrant fouls. The NFL said Monday that 17 players have been ejected since 2007. The AP accounted for 14 of those ejections: nine for throwing a punch or fighting, two for contact with officials, two that fall into the category of helmet hits, and one for head-butting.

Harrison "If I get fined for that, it's going to be a travesty. They didn't call [a penalty] on that. There's no way I could be fined for that. It was a good, clean legit hit. ... I didn't hit that hard, to be honest with you.

-- James Harrison, speaking about his concussion-causing hits Sunday

There have been occasional suspensions in recent years, including safety Roy Williams, then with Dallas, for one game in 2007 for three horse-collar tackles during that season. Tampa Bay cornerback Elbert Mack and New York Jets safety Eric Smith each drew one-game suspensions for "flagrant violations of player safety rules" by launching themselves into an opponent helmet first.

Last season, Carolina defensive back Dante Wesley drew one game for launching himself into a punt returner who had not caught the ball and was in a defenseless position.

Retired safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst for NBC, was adamant about the need for stiff, swift punishment. He was fined more than $200,000 during his career and suspended for one game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

"You didn't get my attention when you fined me 5 grand, 10 grand, 15 grand," he said during the pregame broadcast for "Sunday Night Football." "You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates from not being there. But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars."

Tony Dungy, the former coach and Harrison's broadcast partner, echoed his sentiments -- something that wasn't lost on Anderson.

"When someone as respected as Tony Dungy and a player respected for his play and known for his hitting prowess such as Rodney Harrison say that, in fact, fines do not have a deterrent effect and that suspensions might, it is sobering," he said.

Not only is the league concerned with defenders turning themselves into human missiles, but with aiming for the head with the forearm, shoulder or any other body part.

"The fundamentally old way of wrapping up and tackling seems to have faded away," Anderson said. "A lot of the increase is from hits to blow guys up. That has become a more popular way of doing it. Yes, we are concerned they are getting away from the fundamentals of tackling, and maybe it has been coached that way. We're going to have to look into talking to our coaches."

Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell wonders if the NFL is getting "too strict" about tackles involving the helmet.

"As a defensive player, you have to think about how you hit somebody now, which is totally ridiculous to me," Bell said. "You're trying to get a guy down. Sometimes you get caught leading with your helmet. When you're going to tackle a guy full speed, you can't really think, 'Oh, I have to hit this guy a certain way.' You have to get him down as best you can. Sometimes it's helmet to helmet, which guys aren't trying to do, but that's just the way it is. It's part of the game."

Eagles coach Andy Reid saw the Jackson-Robinson collision from close range.

"That was a tough one there from both sides," Reid said Monday. "The league has put a lot of emphasis on removing the helmet out of the contact point, in particular around the chin or neck area. But some of these are bang-bang. That was a bang-bang deal right there. That wasn't something this kid had planned. He wasn't going to go in there and knock himself out. That's not what he was trying to do here."

Jets safety Jim Leonhard was flagged 15 yards for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Brandon Lloyd in a 24-20 win over the Broncos. Denver coach Josh McDaniels called it an example of how hits often look vicious on TV, but aren't really what they appear.

"I don't think there's anybody that's out there coaching helmet-to-helmet hits," McDaniels said. "I sure know we're not and I don't believe in my heart that there's anybody out there trying to hurt other players."

Asked recently about the league's effort to eliminate helmet hits, Dr. Hunt Batjer, co-chairman for the NFL's Brain, Head and Neck Medical Committee, said:

"If it is not getting the message out, I don't know how to do it. It has been broadcast at every level not to lead with your head. In the heat of battle, things are going to happen. But they just have to be a minimum."

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