One of NFL Films' most popular videos of recent years includes a bleep-infested sideline rant by then New York Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Raging at his teammates to maintain their intensity, Taylor screams, "We gotta go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs!" Smith thinks the crazed dog is an endangered species in the NFL. "What sells in this league?" he asks. "Crunch Course. The 100 Greatest Hits. People love those videos. Ferocious hitting is the game. That's what people want to see. We throw our bodies around like crazy out there, and 80 percent of the time we don't know what we've done until we watch film. We've got to play on instinct—instinct that tells us that, at any cost, I've got to get to the quarterback."
Last season 12 quarterbacks suffered concussions, and, says Green Bay Packer coach Mike Holmgren, a member of the NFL competition committee, "We had to address the issue, for the health of the quarterbacks and the good of the league."
Since 1990 the committee had already passed three rules, to be enforced by on-field penalties and/or off-field fines, that had sackers seeing red: Pass rushers were no longer permitted to hit a quarterback after the release of a pass unless they were within one step of the passer at the time of release; pass rushers were not allowed to strike a quarterback's head; and offensive linemen were allowed to set one step back from the line before the snap, so they could better position themselves against the new breed of NFL speed rusher.
In March the league strengthened the head-hunting proscription with the ban on leading with the helmet or the forearm and added, "A defensive player must not 'launch' himself into a passer or otherwise strike him in a way that causes the defensive player's helmet or face mask to forcibly strike the passer's head, neck or face, even if the initial contact of the defender's helmet or face mask is lower than the passer's neck." The committee also adopted a rule that makes it illegal for a defender to "violently" throw a quarterback down and land on top of him "with all or most of the defender's weight."
The league summoned all head coaches to Dallas in May to explain the new rules and then sent game officials and videos to training camps to show the players what was permissible and what was not. In the second week of the preseason, Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Lloyd hurled himself at Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre just as Favre released a pass. The collision left Favre with a concussion and Lloyd $12,000 poorer for leaving his feet and hitting Favre in the head. Lloyd paid, but he is openly contemptuous of the new rules. "They can continue to fine me," he says, "but I'm going to play the game as it's supposed to be played, not the way it's played in the commissioner's office."
Smith's response to his fine was so vitriolic—among other things, he was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times calling Washington "a punk"—that the league may fine him for his remarks. (He now insists that he never said some of what was attributed to him.) But Washington calls the penalty meted out to Smith for the Miller hit "an easy one," and adds, "Vinson comes in, raises his arms, the quarterback sees him coming and tries to duck, and Vinson goes down and hits him when he's ducking. Vinson said he would have had to sprout wings to miss him. But did you see the tape? He went after Miller's head."
The league crackdown may be having some effect. When Dallas beat the Denver Broncos on Sept. 10, Cowboy defensive tackle Leon Lett held back just as John Elway released a pass. "I kind of bumped him," Lett says. "Last year I might have hit him." Steeler pass rushers seem spooked by the new rules. Pittsburgh led the league in sacks last year, but with largely the same cast they were seventh as of Sunday. Says Steeler defensive lineman Brentson Buckner, "Now I'm thinking, If I hit him here or hit him there, it's going to be a fine. Second-guessing slows you up." And Brown, the latest to be fined, seemed to know he was going to receive the notice. "I left my feet and went head-to-head [with Humphries)," he said last week. "We hadn't even hit the ground, and I was thinking, That's going to cost me."
For the good of the game, it should. When a defender launches himself at a quarterback, and the two players meet helmet-to-helmet, the defender should be punished. It's bad for the fans and it's bad business for the NFL when stars like Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, Favre and San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young aren't playing.
But fines alone are not the answer. Game officials must be more aggressive at calling the penalty at the time of the infraction. Of the eight hits that have resulted in fines, only three were flagged as penalties. Defensive linemen must be made aware that their team will suffer—to the tune of a 15-yard penalty, perhaps at a crucial moment in a game—if they ignore the rules.
Defensive people will continue to say that the game is getting softer. "In a subtle way," Washington Redskin defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz says, "they've disarmed defenses. Over time it will be interesting to see what the psychological impact is. For the football purist this is like the designated hitter issue in baseball, taking away a part of the game fans looked for."