MMQB Mailbag: Week 6 may have changed how defense gets played
Last Sunday could go down as a seminal moment in NFL history
NFL's Ray Anderson: 'We've got to protect players from themselves'
Mailbag questions on Colt McCoy, pass interference and Deion Sanders
When NFL discipline-meister Ray Anderson watched the violent Dunta Robinson hit on DeSean Jackson on Sunday, he said he felt a sick feeling.
"I thought we were looking at a Darryl Stingley case all over again,'' said Anderson, the NFL's vice president of operations.
We may look back at last weekend as a seminal one in how defense is played in the NFL. That might be an exaggeration, but this is very high on the NFL's fix-it agenda, and don't underestimate what the league will do to protect its image when it feels it's in crisis mode. And for a league with its antennae up about head injuries, concussions and post-career care of injured players, last weekend may just have been the kind of perfect storm that will change the way defensive players approach big hits.
The events of the weekend, including the possible paralysis of a Rutgers football player and the strong negative reaction by former big-hitter Rodney Harrison on NBC Sunday night to a series of mega-hits in the Week 6 games, left Anderson feeling "profoundly disturbed.'' And on Tuesday the league announced it will be more vigilant about ejecting and suspending players who make flagrant hits. The league's not-on-my-watch aim is to avoid a case like the one resulting in the paralysis of former New England receiver Stingley in a 1976 game against Oakland, when he was drilled over the middle by Raider safety Jack Tatum.
In fact, I would be surprised if the first piece of discipline doesn't come this week in the form of a suspension of New England safety Brandon Meriweather for his helmet-on-helmet hit on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap.
"Very frankly,'' said Anderson, "a lot of folks would put that hit in the cheap-shot category. I thought it was flagrant and unnecessary ... After listening to the impactful words of Rodney Harrison that fines really are not a deterrent, I think we have to get across to the players that you may be facing a suspension for the kinds of hits we're seeing.''
On Saturday, a Rutgers linebacker, Eric LeGrand, was left without feeling in his extremities on a violent tackle of an Army player; the next day, on the same field, Detroit linebacker Zak Follett was immobilized on the field with a spinal-cord injury. Follett is OK, LeGrand may not be. And on other fields Sunday, violent hits were the order of the day -- Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson kayoed Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson on a vicious tackle, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison had helmet-to-helmet shots on Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, and New England's Meriweather went for the head of Baltimore's Heap.
"We've got to protect players from themselves,'' Anderson said, "and we're going to move aggressively to do so. On Sunday, I felt profoundly disturbed. We've got to hold our players to a higher accountability and get them to understand that they may be facing a suspension, and not only a fine, for some of these hits we're seeing.''
Of the four big hits Sunday -- and there were more in other games that haven't gotten the white-hot spotlight, such as one on St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford -- the Harrison hit on Massaquoi, a defenseless receiver in the classic sense of the NFL word, drew the ire of the league too. The hit should have been flagged for Harrison whacking a defenseless receiver in the helmet, the kind of hit that was a point of emphasis this offseason for the league's 17 officiating crews. But it got no flag.
"We missed a call,'' Anderson said. "That call should have been made.''
Officiating crews, Anderson said, would have reinforced to them this week the fact that players who make egregious helmet-to-helmet hits would be subject not just to penalties and fines, but also to ejection from the game. In the three seasons since the league put that onus on officials that they could eject players for over-the-top hits in games, no player has been ejected for such a violation. There's a good chance that will change now.
One more interesting point raised by ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio: Why not have the replay official empowered to buzz down from the booth to the referee if he sees an egregious physical call that the officiating crew missed? Or to correct a call that obviously was wrong in that regard? Such a case happened in the Jets-Broncos game Sunday, when New York safety Jim Leonhard was called for a personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the Broncos' Brandon Lloyd. Replays showed Leonard never hit Lloyd in the head.
This morning, on Sirius NFL Radio, I asked Denver coach Josh McDaniels about the play, about replay being used as an aid to help officials on plays that move so fast. "The play happened right near our bench,'' said McDaniels. "[Leonhard] stood right up and said, 'Coach, I didn't hit him in the head.' Jim Leonhard should never have been called for a foul ... We've got to make sure it's done the proper way, and if that means involving the replay official, I'm OK with that ... I guess what I'm saying is if they give the officials on the field the latitude to eject a player, and he really didn't do anything illegal, we better make sure we've taken a look at both sides of it.'' And if that includes replay as a tool to help, so be in.
Expect the league to consider all modes now to try to get a better handle on the issue. It's white-hot at 280 Park Avenue at league offices.
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