By Rich Levine
The way some guys in the media are talking, you'd swear the new policy on helmet-to-helmet contact is about to turn the NFL into an intramural flag football league.
Mike Golic spent a chunk of his radio show Tuesday lamenting that the decision marks the end of the NFL as we know it. Trent Dilfer did the same on TV. Kirk Herbstreit thinks that league execs are letting their emotions get the best of them, and sending mixed messages to defensive players. Matt Millen? He's so upset that you'd have thought the NFL just outlawed taking receivers in the first round of the draft.
"So, one weekend of games is gonna change the way you play the game?" Millen screamed from the Monday Night Football set. "That's stupid!"
Yes, Matt. That is stupid. What you said is unbelievably stupid.
Don't get me wrong. I understand why these guys are frightened by the prospect of a wussified NFL. This is a league prided on toughness inhuman, almost unfathomable toughness and when you limit a player's ability to exhibit that toughness, or create a situation where he has to think twice about how hard he should hit a guy, you're taking away from the game. And I agree, it should be avoided at all costs.
But here's what I don't understand.
Why do they think that more serious punishments for breaking the rules will be responsible for any of that? Why are they so convinced that increasing the penalty for an action that is already, and has been for a while now, illegal, will make players any less decisive or intense?
After a lot of thinking, I've come up with only one possible explanation: They're completely missing the point.
Honestly, they think the NFL overreacted to all the violence in last week's games? Come on, if the NFL was overreacting, they would have suspended both James Harrison and Dunta Robinson, and sentenced Brandon Meriweather to three months in an isolation chamber.
If they were overreacting they would have come out with a ruling that said, "Any helmet-to-helmet contact, of any kind, will result in a suspension." It would become the equivalent of making contact with a referee. It wouldn't matter how hard you did it, or if it was even intentional. If you made contact with another player's helmet, you'd be gone. Suspended. End of story.
If the NFL was overreacting, they'd have ordered ESPN to cease production on their "jacked Up" segment and had an intern comb through the NFL Films archives and delete every "Boom! He's on his back!" of John Madden's career.
But they didn't do any of those things. They didn't overreact. They just reacted.
What else were they supposed to do? Ignore it?
In one weekend, you had a college football player paralyzed during a game. You had multiple illegal and well-publicized helmet-to-helmet hits. You had multiple players leave games with concussions. You had players visibly and frighteningly twitching on the ground, and waking up thinking they were Batman. This at a time when a week doesn't go by when you dont hear a story about some ex-NFL player battling through permanent, debilitating football-related injuries; when we're learning more and more about the long-term effects of concussions; when players have morphed into Universal Soldiers, not everyday Joes who hammer beers, smoke cigarettes and keep second jobs during the offseason.
Meanwhile, after the games on Sunday, you had the guys who delivered those hits walking around without even the slightest bit of remorse. If anything, they were celebrating themselves. They were lauded by teammates. One Patriot even cited Meriweather's hit as the turning point in the game.
Things had gotten out of control, and if the NFL didn't make some sort of move towards remedying this issue, they were never going to. Or maybe they just would have waited until one of their own players was paralyzed. And then everyone would have criticized them for that.
So the league reacted, and honestly, the reaction wasn't even that drastic.
They didn't even change the rules. It's not like they're saying, "OK, from now on, any hit that results in a concussion, or any other injury, or even just looks kind of scary, will end in a suspension."
That's what Millen and those guys seem to be missing. Everything that was legal last Sunday morning, will still be this Sunday. You'll just be punished more for breaking the rules. All this change does is deter cheaters and cheap-shot artists from acting like morons; how does that not make the game better?
One argument the anti-suspension guys like to fall back on is that not every helmet-to-helmet hit is intentional. They point out, and rightfully so, that with the game being played as fast as it is, and these players going as hard as they are, some helmet-to-helmets are unavoidable. On a given play a receiver or running backs' head can shift at the last second, and in that case, the collision wouldn't even be the defender's fault. "How can you suspend him?" they wonder. "How is that fair?"
And they're right. It wouldn't be fair.
But again, they're misinterpreting what's actually going on here. It's not like there's going to be an illegal hit in a game, and then Roger Goodell has 90 seconds to rule on a suspension over the loud speaker. These hits are going to be broken down and dissected like JFK's assassination footage. The NFL's probably going to take a little time and do more than their due diligence before making a decision. And let's be honest, is it that hard to tell the difference between an accidental collision and a clear, unabashed cheap shot?
With the technology we have now, the suspension-worthy plays will be pretty obvious.
These new penalties are not going to change the way players approach the game. Or if they do, it will only affect the players who are, in actuality, ruining the so-called sanctity of it. There's a reason it's always the same four or five guys getting fined for hits to the head. Those are the people these new terms are for. If a guy plays within the rules, nothing is different. He can still deliver a crushing blow. He can still make a receiver think twice about coming across the middle. He can still affect the game through intimidation. He just can't take his head, or his forearm, or his shoulder and blatantly try to decapitate a defenseless receiver.
Real quick, lets go back to Super Bowl XXXVI. Do you remember how badly the Patriots secondary screwed with the Rams receivers? Of course you do. It's one of the main reasons New England won the game.
By the end of the first quarter, Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones had pounded and punished Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce to the point where they'd have rather made out with Kurt Warner's wife than run another route over the middle. They took them completely out of their games. They destroyed the Greatest Show on Turf.
And you know what? If that game was played this Sunday, not one of those Patriots defenders would draw a suspension, or even a fine, for how they played. That's because they didnt break any rules. They played good, clean, tough football.
And the league has no intention of ever taking that away, because, as Matty Millen would say: "That's stupid!"