The NFL office's new concession to the offense is the cosmetic fine. If something looks bad, fine the guy, or suspend him, especially if the isolated camera catches it. Make it public. Make a big thing of it. Head shots are particularly popular items. The Jets' Stan Blinka caught the Packers' J.J. Jefferson with a forearm to the head on Nov. 28. Nasty, sure, but at one time standard operating procedure for middle linebackers. Blinka got sent down for a game. "It ranks with the worst infractions I have witnessed," said Pete Rozelle. Oldtimers laughed. Hardy Brown, the old linebacker from the '50s, used to dish out 15 of those per game.
Check the recent punishments and you'll see that they all involve a defensive man hitting an offensive player, but the worst things on a football field are the cheap shots to the knees, the roll-up blocks, the blind-siders against defensive men. Those are seldom caught by the officials or the TV cameras and go unpunished. Most players will tell you that if they have to take a shot, they'd rather take one to the head than to the knee, which could be a career-ender.
Patriot Tight End Don Hasselbeck was outspoken about the head shot Pittsburgh's Ron Johnson delivered to New England Quarterback Steve Grogan two weeks ago. "It makes me sick," Hasselbeck said, and a few Jets had to smile. He was the guy who delivered what many Jets say was the cheapest shot they've ever seen. It involved Joe Klecko on the Sept. 19 play in which the Jets' All-Pro defensive end tore a tendon in his right knee. He was on his back, gripping his leg in agony, and here comes Hasselbeck, taking a 10-yard run at Klecko and diving on his other leg. Did Hasselbeck get a flag? A fine? A suspension? Hardly. It wasn't a head shot, you see.
"I'm surprised none of your teammates put out a contract on Hasselbeck that day," someone told Klecko a couple of weeks ago.
"I guess they don't do that anymore," Klecko said. "Don't worry, though. I'm not forgetting it."
What will happen in the playoffs? Weather should determine how things go. The defenses are still trying to figure out a way to catch up with the passing game. So far, there's no real formula. The Giants rushed three men and had eight back in coverage when the Cards' Neil Lomax beat them on a last-minute pass in Week 8. He had seven seconds to throw, and he found Roy Green alone in the end zone. On the same day, the Falcons sent a furious four-linebacker blitz against the Packers' Lynn Dickey, who calmly completed an 80-yard scoring pass to James Lofton. But there's one defense against the hot passers that always works, and that's the good old Wind Chill Defense. It could get Fouts next week in Pittsburgh as it did last year in Cincinnati.
In the AFC, a West Coast playoff schedule down the line will help the Raiders' Jim Plunkett. In the NFC, Dallas seems capable of beating anyone on any field in any conditions.
Maybe next year the fans will take all this seriously.