By: Rich Bergeron
We’ve seen a crotch kick, an arm stomp, late hits, helmet to helmet launches, and even Jets Coach Rex Ryan cursing at spectators. Flags are flying on NFL fields from coast to coast this year for questionable hits, and the old highlight reel collisions are no longer legal. Players are still getting hurt, and many are playing hurt. From Cowboy QB Tony Romo taking the field with broken ribs to Ben Roethlisberger playing with a broken thumb to Eagle Michael Vick playing with injuries until he could do it no more, quarterbacks continue to take punishment and keep charging. Linemen continue to collide with each other every down of every game, and some come out of the jumble broken and bruised. They get up and play another down anyway. It’s in their blood as gridiron players. Others aren’t so lucky.
Obvious and frequent injuries and comprehensive studies relating to serious brain injury from prolonged and repeated head trauma caused the NFL to take a solid stand against the vicious hits in recent years, hits that would often make the Sportscenter Top 10 in days of old. Fans and experts can agree it’s worth trying to make the game safe and the game likely won’t change all that much if players learn not to purposely smash helmets. The problem seems to lie in the enforcement methods. If you are heavily fining one class of players in the NFL (defenders) much more than another (receivers and running backs), there’s a flaw in the system. Penalties are enough in many respects. A personal foul carries a penalty of 15 yards and an automatic first down for the opposing team if you’re a defender hit with the flag. Chipping into a guy’s paycheck for what are many times purely accidental situations, is just plain unfair.
Heads collide unintentionally all the time in the NFL. Players get plenty of concussions from plays where flags are never thrown. It’s a fast game, and it’s a great idea to make an effort to make football safer, but there are certainly better ways to address the issue. If you can’t use the same technique to encourage college football players to avoid the same type of brutal head-to-head hits, it shouldn’t be applied at the pro level. You can’t fine a college player for a vicious hit.
If it’s a serious enough hit, and it’s clearly intentional, maybe a fine applies, but so many flagged and fine-inspiring hits are purely circumstantial. The stomps, the punches, the late hits out of bounds, and other such blatantly ugly and ill-intended hits should certainly invoke discipline, but not the wrong-place, wrong-time good plays gone bad. It so often seems the flag only gets thrown when a player’s injured or slow to get up.
Receivers get called for pass interference, but rarely, if ever, are they hit with personal fouls when they catch the ball, lower their heads, and plow head first through a defender. Running backs aren’t fined for steamrolling over people. So, why is it that defenders have to bear the brunt of the punishment for playing the game with some intensity, speed, and ferocity?
Save the fines for the players who clearly deserve it, for incidents like Albert Haynesworth’s face stomp, Suh’s recent arm stomp, and classless stuff that cheapens the game and isn’t debatable as to the intent and design of the behavior. When two players are coming at each other at such high speeds, how do you regulate how they’re going to come into contact with each other when there are so many random variables involved?
There have been many improvements and crackdowns on certain issues this year in the post-lockout NFL. The automatic review of all scoring plays seems to make a ton of sense and doesn’t slow down the game all that much. The kickoff being moved is not really hurting many teams as they learn to adapt to it. The only real problem is equating injury with intent to hurt every time a player goes down and a personal foul flag is thrown. It may not be such a bad situation if players on both sides of the ball were treated equally, but they’re not. As the season cruises toward the playoffs, some of the most significant plays could involve penalties for these now illegal hits that players used to practice and try to perfect just to make it on TV. Now they see their paychecks docked for those same hits. The NFL needs to take a second look at how they handle flagging for personal fouls, look at alternate ways to regulate and/or protect players better from helmet to helmet hits, and leave the fines the the most serious and egregious offenses.