The concussion issue has been an NFL hot button for a long time, but things appear to be coming to a head in a way that may force the league to implement stricter penalties against those players who notch up the violence in what is already an absurdly physical sport. Between the James Harrison hits, the Brandon Meriwether up-top on Todd Heap, and the evil (but legal) collision between Dunta Robinson and DeSean Jackson on Sunday, helmet-to-helmet hits will be a topic of conversation at the NFL headquarters and in most front offices this season.
"You didn't get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,'' Harrison said during NBC's "Sunday Night Football" coverage. "You got my attention when I got suspended ... You have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars. The NFL [has to say], 'We're going to really protect our players. We're going to suspend these guys, not one game, but possibly two or more games.'"
Harrison racked up more fines than any player in NFL history, so he knows of what he speaks. More on him in a minute.
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, whose National Football Post columns are required reading, took it further Monday morning by saying that players who engage in hits like the ones James Harrison(notes) doled out to Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi(notes) should be removed from the game immediately.
It sends a bold message and also leaves that team a player short when we talk about the domino effect it has on special teams and the overall game day roster. And, the price for getting tossed on Sunday isn't cheap. A two-for-one impact so to say. [...]
What I am talking about are the deliberate hits in the passing game where a safety or a corner sizes up a receiver -- and takes him down with the crown of his helmet. The results are frightening. Concussions are the most obvious factor here. [...] But we also need to talk about a player's neck and spine -- on both sides of the ball.
Current NFL executive vice-president of operations Ray Anderson told the Associated Press on Monday that those suspensions could be forthcoming.
"There’s strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits. [...] Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension. [...]
"The fundamentally old way of wrapping up and tackling seems to have faded away. [...] A lot of the increase is from hits to blow guys up. That has become a more popular way of doing it. Yes, we are concerned they are getting away from the fundamentals of tackling, and maybe it has been coached that way. We're going to have to look into talking to our coaches."
Former VP of officiating Mike Pereira weighed in on the subject in his most recent column for FOXSports.com:
The NFL will look at all of these plays to determine whether these or any other hits involving the head or neck area can be legislated out of the game. It has already looked at a runner leading with his helmet and a defender tackling a runner by leading with his helmet.
These acts are illegal in college and no doubt will be further studied by the NFL.
On October 5, Pereira told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that Bengals receiver Terrell Owens(notes) and quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) were right to criticize the hit by Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward(notes) on receiver Jordan Shipley(notes) as a cheap shot. His take on that play brought one issue into sharper focus.
"Nobody in the league likes to say that somebody took a cheap shot at somebody. But I'm not in the league,'' Pereira said. "And I think it was a cheap shot and I think he deserves to be hit and he needs to be hit hard.''
Well, that's part of the problem -- the fact that when he was in the league, Pereira either did not feel compelled to raise the issue or was muted when he did so. Given the general tone of his NFL Network appearances over the years, when he routinely went easy on bad calls during the weekly "Official Review" segment, my guess is that Pereira didn't want the lack of enforcement to reflect badly on the refs that worked for him.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the two James Harrison hits is that neither one was flagged by Walt Anderson's crew. So, what does it say if Harrison is ejected from the game, and suspended from further action, and Anderson's crew is allowed to skate? The crew-to-crew swings from low to high on just about any penalty you care to mention are radical enough to lead one to believe that Pereira should have done more when he was in a position of power. As he implies, it's a lot easier to be the tough guy on this stuff when it isn't part of your job. Anderson and his crew should be just as eligible for fines and suspensions as James Harrison or any other dirty player.
What is the NFL to do about these hits? It's generally Roger Goodell's style to assemble blue-ribbon panels filled with men of high integrity, but in this case, I think it would be wise to go the other way. If you want to catch a thief, you employ those people who know how thieves think. Goodell should assemble a group led by Rodney Harrison to study the realities of legislating these types of hits out of the game.
If the NFL wants to stop this stuff, it's time to understand the thoughts and feelings behind the culture of violence, and how they can be shaped to the best effect in what will always be a violent game.