The mistake is to assume the NFL can change the nature of its players, rewiring them to remove the desperation that consumes their lives. In a sport where few contracts are guaranteed, where the men who wear the jerseys are discarded at the first sign of a salary-cap crisis, there is no policing a way to tackle just because a few extra bodies piled up last weekend.
The Steelers' James Harrison(notes) is right. A defensive player robbed of his frenzy is a shell of the player he was. Helmet-to-helmet hits have always been a part of the game – an illegal part of the game but also one that is often difficult to control. The difference is today's players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. When they collide the damage is worse.
Helmet-to-helmet hits are only an issue this week because there was a large number of violent crashes over the weekend. This led to a run of bad publicity for the NFL and therefore a new policy had to be crafted in reaction.
This is the way things work in the NFL today.
But if the league is really concerned about helmet-to-helmet hits and injuries and concussions it would drop this talk of an 18-game season.
Already the NFL season at 16 games is too long. This is something we are beginning to grasp as the stories spill out about what a career of pounding into other men at full speed has done to those who played the game. Common is the fused vertebrae in the neck or the damaged joints in the knee.
Less known is the head trauma, the repeated blows players absorb week after week in practice and in games. Research into this is still in its infancy and yet all one has to do is study the slides of brain tissue sampled from the few deceased ex-players who have been studied, see the telltale flecks of abnormal proteins from repeated blows to the head – a precursor to early onset dementia and Alzheimer's – and realize the danger that lurks on the NFL's fields.
The league was slow to react to the brain injury issue and may only have acted in the face of negative publicity. Yet now that it has, the evidence is so compelling, so disturbing, it's hard to imagine the NFL and the Players Association could agree to extend the season.
Two extra games means two extra times a year a player stands a chance to be seriously injured. It means two more possibilities of debilitating concussions and it means adding to the likelihood that everyone on the field will have some kind of major health issue later in life.
Nonetheless, the 18-game debate appears already settled. The league is pushing forward with this. It sees the extra two games as a way to extract more revenues, to drop half of its unprofitable exhibition games and to lengthen a season where the lure of television and luxury suite money is so enticing. The additional games also allow the league to address a pressing concern of selling the sport overseas.
A great fear in the NFL offices is the league will fall behind baseball and basketball – sports with large international followings. If football is unable to sell itself in Europe or Asia it might find that being the most lucrative sport in the continental United States isn't good enough. The two other games could allow for each team to play in a foreign country every season.
None of this is good for the players, of course. The league has tried to sell them on the thought that with four exhibition games already they are playing 20 contests a year anyway. It's a ridiculous argument. Players rarely play more than half of the preseason games and often even less than that. The speed and fury with which exhibition games are played is nothing like that of the regular season. Everyone understands this.
"We're not automobiles, we're not machines, we're humans," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) told The New York Times this summer. "After the first three, four months your body feels a certain way. You've got to ask yourself, 'How many people are truly healthy in 18 games?'"
"Eighteen games would be a lot tougher physically for the players," Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) said. He added that maybe in exchange for the additional games the league could offer the players better health benefits.
This was the thought that came to mind on Sunday in Philadelphia as Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson(notes) and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) lay almost motionless on the field for several minutes after colliding. Players dropped to their knees. Coaches hovered, their expressions worried. For a time people wondered if the two players would ever get up. When they did they were led woozily down separate tunnels and into their locker rooms.
No rule changes will stop hits like this. No revised policies or fines or suspensions are going to keep defensive players from pounding into running backs and receivers. Stretchers will still come onto the field. Players will still get hurt. Concussions will still happen. This is inevitable. This is how football is played. This is how the fans want football to be played. This is how advertisers want football to be played. And so it is how the league will allow football to be played.
But how with all we know, with all we have seen, can the NFL ask for two extra games? What good is a new dangerous hits policy if the league then creates more opportunities for players to get hurt?