The NFL made examples out of Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather ($50,000 fine), Steelers linebacker James Harrison ($75,000) and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson ($50,000 fine) yesterday for their head shots on Sunday. League vice president of football operations Ray Anderson also sounded a clarion call that future headhunters would face not only fines but suspensions for egregious and dangerous hits.
But there is an old saying that you can't legislate common sense. You can make it against the law for someone not to wear their seat belt, but you can't prevent them from leaving the house without it fastened.
For all the "We are one" gestures on the opening weekend of the season by the players, it's pretty obvious that they either are unwilling or unable to protect each other. Last Sunday was a headbanger's ball in the league with several notable helmet-to-helmet hits, including Meriweather turning himself into a Patriot missile and trying to blow up Baltimore tight end Todd Heap on an incompletion. That blow was so reckless that even the baleful Harrison, who said it's his job to hurt people, called it a "nasty hit" and used it to defend his own on-field behavior.No one, not players, coaches, league executives, media or fans can claim the moral high ground on this subject.
The NFL is always going to look a little sanctimonious with its outrage over these hits. The league had to be hit over the head with mounting evidence of the deleterious defects of concussions before they became more proactive with regard to prevention and treatment. For years they marketed and glorified cringe-worthy collisions as one of the more appealing parts of professional football. If NFL Films had been at the Roman Colosseum, the lions would have been the protagonists.
A lot of football fans remember enjoying "NFL's Greatest Hits" videos, a compilation of kill-shots on mostly defenseless players set to adrenaline-inducing music. Back then the rule was to blow those guys up -- at will. Big hits became the NFL's version of the NBA slam-dunk contest.
The NFL and headshot hits is akin to major league baseball and steroids. For years they buried their head in the sand, and once it became a public relations problem that couldn't go away they found religion. But it was relatively easy for major league baseball to eradicate steroids, all they had to do was try. It has proven harder for the NFL to eliminate concussion-causing hits because violence is part of the game's DNA. There is no testing that can weed out wanton disregard for a fellow player's safety or extraordinarily bad judgment.
It's a fine line -- and sometimes a fined line -- for players who know their job security rests on being able to pry the ball free from the opposition by any means necessary. There are franchises like the Raiders and the Steelers that have built their entire organizational ethos on fear, intimidation, and playing on the edge. Players will argue that if they don't find a way to do their job, teams with find someone else to do it for them. They're right.
Meriweather has been roundly criticized around here for not tackling and letting players bounce off him. He tries to be more physical, but goes about it all wrong. But let's be clear, coach Bill Belichick didn't take him off the field because of outrage over an ostensibly dirty play. He took him off because he committed an undisciplined and unnecessary penalty that cost the team yardage.
That's not an uncommon trait for a Patriots' safety.
Last year, Brandon McGowan was a starter for the first 11 games last season. This is a man who described his style of play as "reckless." Rodney Harrison was beloved during his Patriots career despite being regarded by his peers as one of the dirtiest players of his era. Lawyer Milloy enjoyed more successful launches than NASA. Poor Ty Law had the unfortunate fate of being the Ellis Burks to his gridiron Mike Greenwell.
For most of the NFL's existence, hits like the one Meriweather delivered were part of a safety's job. How many times have you heard an announcer say player X dropped the ball because he heard footsteps? It was not the pitter-patter of cleats that caused the drop, but the idea of being eviscerated. Intimidation is a 12th defender.
That's why the hits are going to keep on coming until the burden for them is shared not only by players, but by coaches and organizations. Fine coaches and owners for their players' conduct and then you might see a real change.
Steelers teammates and coach Mike Tomlin actually lauded James Harrison for his hits on Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi of the Browns. The remorseless Harrison displayed uncommon ignorance about concussions, especially playing for an organization that once employed Merril Hoge, who has become a concussion crusader.
"I thought Cribbs was asleep," Harrison said in an Associated Press story. "A hit like that geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt, he's just sleeping. He's knocked out but he's going to be OK."
Tell that to Ted Johnson or Kevin Turner or John Mackey. If the NFL thought players like Cribbs were going to be okay, they wouldn't have instituted tougher guidelines for players to return from concussions last December or donated $1 million dollars earlier this year to the Boston University School of Medicine's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Headshots are creating a headache for the NFL. The league is taking steps in the right direction, but in a game as violent and competitive as football, the idea of player safety will always be precarious at best and an oxymoron at worst.
That's something NFL players won't forget no matter how many concussions they suffer.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.