Intimidating hits are nothing new in NFL, but culture must change
'Sports Illustrated' wrote about topic of big hits in July 2007
Not much has changed in past three years, save for players' size
NFL must act to protect its most important asset: the players
"What we've got to do is find a way to play this game without killing each other.''
--Lito Sheppard, June, 2007
The quote holds, three years later, as the NFL addresses the paradox that has been shadowing its popular and lucrative enterprise for either the past two days (since Sunday's collection of brutal hits), the past two years or -- let's be honest -- much longer than that. Big hits are ingrained into the culture and the selling of football, yet we are learning that big hits are slowly killing the players.
On Sunday, there was New England's Brandon Meriweather on Baltimore's Todd Heap. Pittsburgh's James Harrison on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi and, most memorably, Atlanta's Dunta Robinson on Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson (a blow that left both players concussed). As SI.com's Peter King suggested in his Monday Morning Quarterback column, something had to be done.
On Tuesday, Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president for football operations, told ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning'' that "strict liability'' will be in place, beginning with this weekend's games. "You should know the rules,'' Anderson said. "If you're in violation of those rules, we're going to hold you to a higher standard.'' Today, the NFL said it will begin suspending players who break these rules.
And just to be precise, the rule in question is Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8. A portion of that rule reads as follows:
(f) If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/"hairline" parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures, including but not limited to:
(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; or(2) Lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the "hairline" or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body....
In the spring of 2007, I set out to explore the phenomenon of the Big Hit in a what became an 11-page story in Sports Illustrated in July of that same year. The only thing that has changed in those intervening three years is that the players have spent a few more days in the weight room and on deserted fields with their personal trainers, getting just a little bit bigger, a little bit faster and a little more explosive. And with all of that, the sport itself has gotten a little more violent. Just a little. (I spent some time last spring watching tape of Gale Sayers in the 1960s; they weren't playing two-hand touch then, either).
Two interviews from the Big Hit story remain pertinent to the current debate.
First, safety Brian Russell, who at the time was moving from the Browns to the Seahawks (and is currently out of the league). The conceit of the SI story was to examine a bunch of specific big hits (it turned out to be seven) and talk to the players involved. During the '06 season, Russell had laid out Chad (then Johnson) Ochocinco with a helmet-to-helmet shot as Johnson reached for a pass on a crossing pattern. Eight months after the hit, I talked to Russell about it. Here is how he described the play, which was not terribly dissimilar to Meriweather's hit on Heap (a closing deep safety on a defenseless receiver in the middle of the field):
"Once I see the receiver release, my eyes go to the quarterback,'' Russell said. "At that point, you get a fraction of a second to decide if you're going for the ball or going for the hit. You go on instinct. I didn't think I could get there for the interception, so the decision is made. I'll got for the hit. You run downhill to the man and if you get there a little early, they throw the flag. If you try to stop and wait, to time it perfectly all the time, you'll never make any plays. This is the game we play. I have to be physical. You have to pull the trigger and make a play.''
Also this from Russell: "I try to lead with a shoulder, but in the middle of a play there's no time to stop and wonder if you're doing it right. And while you're hitting with your shoulder pads, you can't put your helmet in your pocket. It's right there.''
Lastly, this, on the general nature of the hitting: "Guys are in the weight room every day and doing spring training at the same time. They're doing everything they can to make the collisions more violent than they already are.''
As with any story in the magazine, I didn't print everything that Brian Russell said to me. I looked back through my notes and found this, as well: "The position I play, safety in a Cover Two set, they want me to make that hit. They want me to drive on the ball and create an incompletion.''
Once again, those statements are three years old, but little has changed. Certainly the concepts have not changed. That's a relatively schematic view. For a more philosophical view of the big hit, here is Ray Lewis of the Ravens, also from 2007:
"When you get that type of hit on a player, trust me, the game is not the same after that -- and the player is not the same, either,'' said Lewis. "That player is going to ask himself, Will I pay the price? Do I really want to get hit that hard again. And that's what the game is about. The long runs, the touchdowns and all that, that's the glamour. But the game is about taking a man down, physically and mentally.''
Let's be clear on something. Neither Russell (a solid player for a few years in the league) nor Lewis (a likely Hall of Fame linebacker) were talking about purposely concussive head shots, but rather about violent hits in general. Yet as Russell points out, it's pretty clear that the type of head shots the league is looking to penalize (and ultimately eliminate) are frequently just the by-product of speed, power and violence of the game and not directly intentional.
I won't sit here, safe at my laptop, and expound on the mentality of violence in professional football. I know only what players tell me. Big hits are an integral part of the game, from both a strategic and emotional standpoint. A hit like Russell's on Ochocinco (or Meriweather's on Heap) is intended not just to break up a pass, but also to discourage a player from running freely into the same area of the field another time, and maybe to shorten his arms on third-and-long.
And big hits entertain. The gasp that emanates from a full stadium when a player is laid out is a fundamental part of football entertainment. Not saying that's a good thing, but it's real, and to deny it is nonsense.
(Maybe I'm alone on this one, but over the course of the current NFL season, I've seen more receivers turtling up over the middle than ever before; that is, making a catch and getting onto the ground, yards-after-catch be damned.)
I also know what I've seen (and heard) at field level during games or practices. The televised NFL game is a sensational piece of entertainment, but it's a deeply sanitized version of what actually takes place. The hitting is positively fearsome.
In my experience, every American male who put on a helmet for his high school when he was 16 years old -- I was one of them -- thinks he understands the level of hitting in professional football. He doesn't. Not even close. But he can comfortably and safely act like it from his couch on Sunday afternoons, and argue that NFL players are richly compensated for the risks in catching passes over the middle.
Concussion research in the past several years has made it obvious the NFL needs to reduce the incidence of head injuries in its game. Strict enforcement of rules in place today is a step in that direction. The NFL is acting to preserve the health of its most important asset: the players. There's no amount of money that can suitably compensate a young former athlete for the loss of cognitive function.
Intimidating hits go back to Jack Tatum, Fred Williamson, Dick Butkus, Concrete Charlie Bednarik and beyond. Players are bigger and faster now, and they celebrate every hit, not just the big ones. But the concept is not new, even if brain research is. It's vital that the culture change. But to suggest that this doesn't change the sport is delusional.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden's book, "Blood, Sweat and Chalk; The Ultimate Football Playbook; How the Great Coaches Built Today's Game,'' examines the roots of many of football's most iconic offensive and defensive systems. It can be ordered here