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Over and over, Chicago Bear linebacker Vinson Smith watched a replay of his big hit on St. Louis Ram quarterback Chris Miller. With each viewing, Smith grew angrier. The NFL had levied a $12,000 fine on him for the blow, and as he reran the tape in the Bears' meeting room last Saturday, he kept trying to figure out why.
"This game was built on aggressive behavior," Smith said, pounding his fist on his thigh. "People are always comparing football to war. Well, in war the enemy is always fighting to get to the center of power, the brain center, using any means necessary. It's the same in football. The quarterback is the center of power, and we've got to get him out of his game. If we can't, he's going to win the war."
Smith simmered. "You can't put a cage around the quarterback and take the intimidation factor out of the game, but that's what the league is doing," he said.
Early in the fourth quarter of the Rams' 34-28 win over the Bears on Sept. 24, Miller dropped back to pass, and just as he released the ball, Smith launched himself at him, leading with his right forearm. Miller turned and ducked, but it was too late. As the play ended, he lay on the ground with what the Rams later said was a slight concussion.
Referee Larry Nemmers observed the hit from a distance of no more than 10 yards, but no flag was thrown. From both angles shown on the videotapes, it was unclear whether Smith's forearm or his helmet made the initial contact with Miller's head, and Smith insists that his body, not his elbow or his helmet, connected first. Smith suspects the hard artificial turf of St. Louis's Busch Stadium caused Miller's injury.
But the league viewed the hit quite differently—as did Miller, who said last Saturday, with no trace of anger at Smith, "He left his feet, flew at me, led with his elbow and knocked me silly."
When Smith arrived at work three days after the hit, he received a notice informing him that he was the latest transgressor caught by the NFL's new quarterback-protection program. The league's director of development, Gene Washington, ruled that the hit violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 11, adopted last March, which states: "A defensive player must not use a face mask or other part of his helmet against a passer who is in a virtually defenseless posture...."
Washington reviewed film Monday of a fearsome hit by Buffalo Bill defensive end Bruce Smith that knocked New York Jet quarterback Boomer Esiason out of Sunday's game with a severe concussion and determined it was legitimate. He also was still looking into an Oct. 1 hit by Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Chad Brown on San Diego Charger quarterback Stan Humphries. The expectation is that Brown's hit will cost him at least $10,000.
The NFL has already fined seven players a total of $65,500 this season for mugging quarterbacks. As a result, safeguarding the passer is once again the hot-button debate around the league. "They're protecting the quarterback so much it's getting ridiculous," Arizona Cardinal safety Lorenzo Lynch says. "They ought to put him in a bubble, like the pope."
The larger issue, the one that Vinson Smith kept returning to last Saturday, is this: Is the NFL, in trying to protect quarterbacks from career-shortening injuries, making pro football a softer game?