"Ed Reed is a great, great football player. I think there's no way Ed would purposely go out and hurt somebody" -- Rex Ryan
The NFL's decision to suspend Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed for a game for repeated violations of its defenseless player rules, hitting him with the "repeat offender" tag, seems on its surface to be very much in line with a proposed and oft-publicized intent to make the game safer. With over 4,000 former players involved in a series of ever-growing lawsuits against the league for alleged past neglect in the monitoring of player safety, the league feels a need to send shots that are just as definitive as the ones it claims Reed laid on three defenseless players over the last three seasons.
"We cannot tolerate repeated violations of rules, especially rules related to player safety," NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said in the league's suspension announcement. "We will continue to take the strongest possible action to deter these types of violations and protect our players."
Of course, Anderson's mandate was repealed when Ted Cottrell of the league's appeal board overturned the suspension on Tuesday, fining Reed $50,000 instead.
"I have determined that your actions were egregious and warrant significant discipline," Cottrell wrote in a letter to Reed. "However, I do not believe that your actions were so egregious as to subject you to a one-game suspension without pay. Player safety is the league's primary concern in the formation of playing rules and all players are expected to adhere to those rules or face disciplinary action. I hope in the future you will focus on ensuring that your play conforms to the rules."
The play that pushed the league over the edge was Reed's penalized tackle of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the third quarter of Sunday night's Ravens victory. However, the suspension doesn't clarify the NFL's position on hits to defenseless players as much as it continues to illuminate the blurry line between what's realistic to legislate in a game where violent things happen in a big hurry all the time. Reed's other alleged offenses were a hit on New England Patriots receiver Deion Branch earlier this season, and a hit on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in 2010.
In the slow-motion review of the play, two things are clear. After Sanders finished his crossing route from right to left and catches the ball from quarterback Byron Leftwich, Reed closed in on the receiver and turned his head before contact to avoid a direct helmet-to-helmet hit. Sanders lowered his pad level before impact and turned his helmet to face Reed, putting him more in harm's way than he would have been.
"He's a good person, and he's got a good heart," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "He's got tremendous respect for the game, and we stand behind him in that respect as a team and as an organization."
Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who's run afoul of the NFL's defenseless player policy before, didn't see the logic.
"Tough on Ed getting suspended," Clark tweeted soon after the suspension was announced. "I can't say that I agree w/that. It was a penalty but I don't believe he was intentionally trying to harm E."
On Tuesday morning, Anderson told Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on ESPN Radio that the burden to protect the defenseless offensive player is on the defender, no matter what.
"We want him to hit below the head and neck area," Anderson said, when asked just how Reed was supposed to make that play. "We'd like to see him use his shoulder. we'd like to see him wrap up in a more traditional technique. But we absolutely do not want to see head-to-head, or shoulder- or forearm-to-head area contact. No real attempt to wrap up, and going almost missile-like up high. We cannot have those hits in the game any longer."
But as Golic pointed out, Sanders lowered his head and changed his pad level to prepare for impact as Reed closed in, which made the occurrence of illegal contact far more probable. This question keeps coming up, and the league has provided no realistic answer. How are defensive players supposed to adjust to quick pad level changes in that timeframe?
"Well, Ed Reed is a repeat offender, and the burden is on the defender to alter his target in situations like that, where a [receiver] is defenseless. Here's the bottom line for us -- hits to the head and neck area are potentially life-altering, as well as career-altering. We believe that, and we have enough to show us that. Illegal hits to the head and neck area are our biggest concern, and we are absolutely intent on getting those out of the game."
Well, Anderson didn't answer the question there, nor did he at any stage of the interview. Instead, he leaned on a set of clearly rehearsed talking points, referring to Reed as a "repeat offender" at least once more, and bringing up the judicial system and the concept of "aggravated offenses."
Anderson brought fire to the discussion, and it's clear that for whatever reason, the NFL is going to react (or perhaps overreact) to anything it deems out of line. But what are the coaches supposed to do? How do they coach these problematic hits out of the players, and is that even possible? Defensive-minded coaches around the league seem to agree that when their players come to them looking for coaching points, it's tough to know what to say at times.
ESPN analyst Eric Mangini, who once coached defensive backs for Bill Belichick, echoed those concerns.
"What was going to be a legal hit becomes an illegal hit, and you have to change your reaction in a split second," Mangini said. "You can't have the blow-up hits. You can't have the hits where you send a message to wide receivers coming across the middle of the field. Everybody's tentative. Everybody's worried about getting fined. And as much as you're coaching it, the players know what's coming. Guys are trying to do it the right way, and the message has been sent, but it gets to the point that if you keep beating them over the head without correcting them and saying, 'This is how you should do it...'
"When a guy goes in [to a play] like that, with legal intent and the right pad level, what do you tell him? What's the coaching point? Go that much lower? You get into an area where you don't have a good answer for them. The game is safer, but you've got to give the players some sort of answer if you're going to penalize them for making a mistake."
The NFL is right about one thing -- this is a game of angles, and taking the wrong angle can lead to serious consequences. Right now, the NFL is primarily interested in pull quotes, "shock-and-awe," and the need to avoid the appearance of neglect in this matter. When it's time to do more than send out a few random pictures and videos to the players, we might be on a path to a safer game -- and further away from the propaganda that people create when they want to randomly insist that things are better.
Whether Ed Reed is suspended or not, fairly or not, the issues still remain.
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