The players' general hatred of artificial turf is well documented. Very few of them like fake grass, but in the last two contract sessions, while elimination of synthetics was a blanket demand, it quickly became a throwaway issue in former executive director Ed Garvey's negotiating strategy when the heavy matters came up—like money. Note to current association director Gene Upshaw: Worker safety is a top priority for a responsible union. It's not a throwaway.
San Francisco coach Bill Walsh's idea of a joint player-management committee to examine the carpets every year and replace them when necessary, or at least to eliminate the more unsafe aspects, is a good one. If a particular field proves to be unsafe no matter what is done, then bring back the grass in that particular stadium—assuming it's outdoors (sad to say, grass won't grow properly in the domes). Make that a keynote demand at the contract talks.
Cheap shots cause injuries, too. It's a fact of life in football—always was, always will be. The problem is that the people responsible for the cheap shots are now so much better equipped to deliver the crippling blow—again, the size and speed factors. The NFL takes a curious approach to cheap shots—protect the quarterback, protect the head. The cosmetic approach. Granted, quarterbacks must be protected from late hits, out-of-bounds hits and general mayhem, although one, Cleveland's Gary Danielson, curiously, says new provisions to protect his brethren are not needed. (He is recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the last exhibition game—against the Raiders.)
"I hope they don't pass new rules, because pressuring the quarterback is a part of the game that needs to be that way," he says.
Consistency in officiating is the key. Ben Dreith is a referee who has always tuned in to quarterback safety. "An old lady about it," Steeler coach Chuck Noll says. Pat Haggerty, though, froze when the Bears' William Perry slammed St. Louis's Neil Lomax to the ground on Aug. 23, drawing a $2,000 fine from the NFL but no flag from Haggerty.
But why protect only the quarterback? How about the running back who gets teed up by two tacklers and finished off by a third one, as Bengal fullback Bill Johnson was against the Steelers (he missed one game with a neck injury). That's the play that really needs the quick whistle.
The NFL's interpretation of anatomy is strange. Head shots are severely penalized, but the crippling blindsider to the knee is O.K., especially when linemen do it to each other. Most of the fights along the line of scrimmage start that way. Three seasons back the Cowboys' Too Tall Jones came up swinging—very rare behavior for this normally mild player—when the Oilers' rookie tackle Bruce Matthews sneaked behind him and tried to blow out his knee. Jones drew the flag. The Jets' Marty Lyons went to the mat with New England's Ron Wooten on a similar play last month. Offsetting penalties. Jump ball. The reason is that such tactics are technically legal. But it's time to take intent into account. Deliberate attempts to maim must be punished, even in cases in which a blow to the head (big NFL no-no) is not involved.
Solution: Pass a rule that says no cut-blocking unless you're faceup with a man. Clipping is illegal everywhere else on the field. It should be on the line, too.
But how about the illegal, career-ending type of injury? New Orleans safety Antonio Gibson put the Giants' Lionel Manuel out six weeks ago with a vicious knee shot in the end zone after a pass had sailed out of reach. No flag. No nothing. The intent? Well, you don't go to break up a pass at knee level, and there's nothing to be gained by a low tackle in the end zone. Instead of worrying about hands-to-the-face calls, this is the type of thing the NFL should go after.
Solution: Biblical justice. An eye-for-an-eye penalty. If a player puts someone out for a week with a blatantly illegal blow, suspend him for a week. If the other guy is out a month, suspend the culprit for a month, a year for a year, a career for a career. Think about it. If you want to eliminate the really bad cheap shots, then hand out really tough punishment.