So now the National Football League has sent a message to its players: If you don’t stop trying to hurt one another, we’re going to get really angry. After three hits in games this past weekend that could have resulted in serious injury—to EITHER player—the NFL announced major fines for the three players and wagged its finger and said, ‘do this again and you will be severely punished.’
Has Roger Goodell hired the NCAA Enforcement Committee as consultants? Fines, even one as high as $75,000, mean little to the players these days. The glory they get from being thought of as tough guys by fans and the fawning media more than makes up for any financial loss they might suffer. As Rodney Harrison, the ex-Patriot now working for NBC said last week, “fines mean nothing.”
Suspensions mean something. They can cost a team games and that upsets the owner, the general manager, the coach and the other players. If you do something that might jeopardize your team’s ability to make the playoffs or get home field advantage in the playoffs, that gets everyone’s attention.
So let’s see what the NFL does with the next ‘kill shot,’ as Tony Kornheiser eloquently called them on his radio show today. (I wonder if he’ll be allowed to use that phrase on ‘PTI.’).
There’s a much more urgent issue though than whether the next guy who launches himself at someone like a human missile gets suspended. It is this ridiculous macho notion that if the league puts a stop to this sort of thing it will take the violence and anger and emotion out of football that players and fans love—and that the league and TV networks have spent years promoting.
Already players and a lot of the ex-jock talking heads are screaming that you might as well rename the league the NFFL (National Flag Football League) if they crack down on this sort of violence.
The fact is that, more often than not, the sort of tackle that we’re talking about here—one where a player launches himself at another player—is BAD FOOTBALL. A good tackle is usually made by not leaving your feet; by wrapping a player up and by gaining control of his legs. Sometimes you aren’t in position to do that, so you dive or lunge at a player. But when you’re close enough to someone that by launching yourself at him you’re going to hit him in the head or up high, that’s just lousy tackling. More often than not, when a player does that he either misses the tackle completely or the ball carrier bounces off him because he sees him coming and moves in such a way that the tackler doesn’t get a clean shot at him.
No one is saying you can’t go after the guy with the ball. You do it the way Ray Lewis does it, driving your body—arms first—into the player while running at him at full speed. On the college level, Navy has a safety named Wyatt Middleton. He’s been a four year starter. I promise you I can count on my hands the number of times he has left his feet to make a tackle. I have never seen him make a tackle where he drives his head into someone and jumps up celebrating because his victim is lying on the ground in pain.
I’ve also almost never seen him miss a tackle. He is as good a one-on-one tackler as I’ve seen in college football in years. He doesn’t have great speed or size, he just knows how to play the game and that’s what’s made him a great player.
The flip side to that is a game Navy played against Maryland five years ago. Late in the game, Maryland had a fourth-and-ten on a last-chance drive. The Terrapins were forced into a swing pass and Navy had TWO tacklers waiting for the runner. All they had to do was stay on their feet, line up the runner and bring him down and the game was over. Both wanted to be heroes—I’m not protecting them by not naming them I just don’t remember who they were—so they dove at the runner. He side-stepped them both, went down the sideline and picked up the first down. Maryland won the game.
Have you ever been to an NFL practice? I have. And I promise you I have never heard or seen a coach teaching players how to tackle that way. Just the opposite in fact. Now, I know there are bad coaches on the lower levels of the game who might encourage that sort of play but they do it because they think it is somehow cool or because they think the kids will like it.
They are idiots. Not only are they teaching their players how to play the game dangerously, they are NOT teaching them how to play the game well. I have never heard a coach I respect say anything like, “let’s go out there and knock someone’s head off; let’s hurt someone.” What I have heard is, “be sure on your tackles, get low whenever you can and WRAP UP.” The other thing they repeat over and over is, “do not put your head down making a tackle.”
Not only is that a good way to miss a tackle, it can lead to tragedy. On Saturday, Eric LeGrand, a good and experienced Rutgers football player, for some reason put his head down trying to make a tackle on a kickoff. He ended up on his back not moving and has not moved since. In an instant, his entire life changed. We should all be focusing a lot more attention on what he is going through than screeching about how unfair it might be to try to put a stop to helmet-first tackling.
So let’s stop all the hand-wringing and whining about how the game won’t be the same if these sorts of hits are treated more harshly in the future. We aren’t talking about rules changes—the rules governing these hits already exist. Let’s not talk about the good old days because in the good old days we didn’t know what we know today about head injuries.
Might there be times when officials go too far and call what could be a clean hit a penalty? Sure. No rule is going to be perfect or enforced perfectly. But I’d rather see them err on the side of caution and good health than go the other way. And if the league looks at the hit on tape on Monday and decides it was clean, then the only bad thing that has happened is a 15-yard penalty that shouldn’t have been called. Those happen all the time. If an official is CERTAIN a player was trying to hurt another one he should have the ability to go to replay (heck, they do it on half the plays nowadays anyway) and make a decision on ejection. That’s what they do now with fights in basketball.
The NFL is very publicity conscious. That’s why it is clucking this week about how concerned it is about what happened on Sunday even though—Thank God—no one was seriously hurt. But it needs to take this issue very seriously. And it needs to NOT listen to players; NOT listen to fans and NOT listen to the macho ex-jock media brigade. It SHOULD listen to one ex-player—Steve Young who said, “I don’t want to see someone die during a game.”
None of us do. So let’s teach everyone at every level how to play hard, tough and GOOD football and leave the ‘kill shots,’ where they belong: in the past.
My pal Tom O’Toole, who is the colleges editor at USA Today, called yesterday to make a correction to something I wrote Monday: Apparently after announcing that the final coaches balloting would be secret this year, the coaches—under some pressure from USA Today and others—reversed themselves. Their ballots will be available for public scrutiny—which might make it tougher to keep Boise State or TCU out of the national title game. Which is good. Good for them and USA Today for un-doing a poorly thought out decision.
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