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Can't change fact NFL a 'physical, tough game'

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) has spent 14 years working in the equivalent of a busy crosswalk.

"Imagine you're at an intersection in New York City, there are cars moving through really fast and you decide to cross. You can see everything that's coming, but that doesn't mean you can avoid it," said the five-time Pro Bowler. "It's not fast to me because I'm used to it, but it is dangerous."

Regardless of the NFL's announcement Tuesday that it may suspend players in an effort to curb violent hits, Barber doesn't believe the measures put in place are going to change the action.

"I suppose it could help," Barber said, referring to the $175,000 in fines the NFL handed out to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison(notes), Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) and New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather(notes) on Tuesday for illegal hits. "But I really don't think it's going to change much. It may make some guys soft, but the game is played at a certain speed."

To Barber and many others, the head-to-head hits that people are reacting to this week aren't out of intention. The plays, including Robinson's collision with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson(notes), are just reaction in a game played at unbelievable speed.

"I know that I don't ever try to hit anybody with my head and I don't think there's anybody on our team who tries to hit with his head," Barber said. "The reason is that when you hit with your head, you're just as likely to hurt yourself as you are to hurt the other person."

To wit, Robinson didn't just knock Jackson out of the game (and possibly longer with a concussion); Robinson also knocked himself out.

"To me, when I saw that play, it looked like a reaction, not intention. People are moving so fast that you don't have time to think, 'How am I going to hit this guy?' You just hit him and the natural reaction when you're about to get hit or deliver a hit like that is to flinch or lower your head," Barber said.

In short, as the NFL goes through its latest debate over the perils of hard hits and tries to decipher what is legal from illegal in a game that's basically human demolition derby, the contradictions are as difficult to sort as the mess over foreclosures.

"There's strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits," NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told the Associated Press. "Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension."

However, there's a two-fold problem the NFL faces:

Teams' inability to teach proper tackling techniques, particularly once the season begins.

Hard hitting is essential to the game, especially as it pertains to certain players' job security.

While there is a clear intellectual line between the desire for hard hits and not wanting injury, have fun drawing that line in the midst of a game when players are running at full speed with the goal of trying to score or keeping the other guy from scoring.

"Hey, I'm all for making sure we teach everything the right way and making the game as safe as possible," New York Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff said. "I really believe in what [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell is doing. I completely respect what he's trying to do."

But …

"Let's not panic. We'll get this worked out … Let's not forget that this is a violent game. It's a physical, tough game played by physical, tough people. Some of these guys, I don't know what they would be doing if they weren't doing this," Westhoff said, jokingly.

Sort of.

"Hey, we're not running a church league here," Westhoff said.

Former longtime NFL assistant coach Jim Bates said he watched the games last weekend and noticed the large number of questionable hits.

"There were more head-to-head shots than I've seen in a long time," Bates said. "Trust me, none of us want anybody to get hurt. None of us teach head-to-head hitting. You want guys to see what they hit, get the shoulder on the ball and drive through the ball carrier.

"But you can't go in there and soft tackle somebody in the middle of the field. As a defense, you have to establish that this is our territory or the offense is going to attack you all game long."

Westhoff and Bates agreed that part of the problem is that teaching tackling technique is difficult, if not impossible.

"Look, I had a full-speed coverage drill last week before we played Denver with hitting, we just didn't take anybody to the ground," Westhoff said. "You can't do that. If you had full hitting in practice, particularly in the season, you wouldn't be able to play on Sunday."

Said Bates: "Years ago when I was in college and you had the scholarship players and all the walk-ons, you had the numbers where you could hit every day and we did. … But once I got to the NFL, you just didn't have the numbers and there's just no way you could do it."

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Both Jackson and Robinson suffered concussions as a result of their collision.
(Eric Hartline/US Presswire)

Some people have defended Robinson's hit as clean because he led with his shoulder, but it's quite clear that Robinson was not going for a tackle. Instead of bending his knees and going to wrap Jackson, Robinson simply went at Jackson high and went for the hit. If Jackson had more than a step to react, Robinson's hit could have become a terrible whiff.

That said, there's no question that coaches believe in teaching tough hitting. On Monday night, for instance, ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden repeatedly praised the work of Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil and cornerback Cortland Finnegan(notes). During his playing days, Cecil was known as one of the dirtiest players in the game. Finnegan, a former Pro Bowler, is considered a dirty player by today's standards.

Moreover, Jets head coach Rex Ryan has talked about his defenses inflicting "blunt force trauma." Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was quoted before one game as saying, "The most violent team usually wins."

That is, of course, part of the game.

Not playing violently can be a problem for players. If a player doesn't make the tackle or a hard hit, he'll often be ridiculed. For instance, when cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes) (then playing for the San Diego Chargers) didn't attempt a tackle against New York Jets running back Shonn Greene(notes) last year in the playoffs, Cromartie was ripped constantly during the offseason and still carries the tag of being soft as a tackler. The same was often said of cornerback Sam Madison(notes) during his career and he was ultimately let go by the Dolphins and then-coach Nick Saban in large part because of the perception that Madison wouldn't tackle.

Madison went on to be part of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in 2007, but he has forever been criticized for lacking the toughness to tackle.

"In this game, if a player isn't willing to lay it on the line, he better be pretty special in other areas to survive," Bates said. "That's just the way it is."