Hard stance on hits could soften game

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As the workweek staggers to the finish line and the NFL weekend blessedly approaches, you’re looking forward to some intriguing matchups – from Brett Favre’s(notes) Return To Lambeau Field (Part Deux), to Tom Brady(notes) vs. Philip Rivers(notes), to your fantasy team that no one cares about battling that other guy’s equally irrelevant team.

Fair enough, but what I’m most eager to see is whether football as we know it is dead, or at least heavily compromised.

That might seem an overreaction to the NFL’s newly mandated emphasis on hits to the head and neck area in the wake of three high-profile incidents last Sunday, but it’s an opinion that’s shared by a significant sector of the football community. Over the past few days, I’ve had numerous conversations with current and former offensive and defensive players, and many expressed fear that the league’s recent actions will change the game in immediate and significant ways.

Specifically, they believe that the recent fines handed to Steelers linebacker James Harrison(notes), Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) and Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather(notes) – and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s warning that enhanced discipline, including suspensions for first-time offenders, will follow for future transgressions – will cause many defenders to become tentative and give yet another significant edge to their offensive counterparts.

Here are some of the things we might see on Sunday:

• Defensive backs and linebackers appearing awkward when the ball is in the air. On crossing routes, look for safeties and backside cornerbacks to shy away from some big-hit opportunities because they’re worried about getting fined. Instead, they might take dramatic lunges at the football or try to make contact with the receiver without using their helmets. Expect some defenders to aim low, possibly diving at the receiver’s legs. As defenders try to wrap up a moving target, see if you notice flat-footed stances, flailing arms and outright whiffs. As former Bucs and Raiders defensive tackle and NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp(notes) said: “Somebody’s gonna hit somebody and try to lead with his shoulder, and that guy’s gonna bounce off him and score a touchdown that never should’ve been scored. Damn right it’ll happen.”

• Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks trying to work the atmosphere of newly heightened enforcement to their advantage. “I would attack the middle of the field this week in a serious way, and I’m sure a lot of coordinators and quarterbacks have that mentality,” said ESPN analyst and ex-NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer(notes). “I think you’ll see tight ends down the middle, receivers on crossing routes and backs out of the backfield on angle routes everywhere you look because they want to see how the defensive players will react. The whole concept of [offensive] football is to create clutter in the defensive mind. And with all that money on the line, there may be some cluttered minds out there.”

• Incongruous indecisiveness from players you’re used to seeing play at full speed. For all the game film and meetings to which players are exposed during the week, the goal of their coaches is not to make them analytical on game days. Rather, the best players assimilate the strategic knowledge and store it on an almost intrinsic level so that, in the heat of battle, they can simply react and attack. As Sapp said: “The only football player on a field that thinks is the [expletive] placekicker. That’s why they call timeouts for that dumb-ass – so he can think some more before he kicks.” The prospect of losing one-eleventh of one’s base salary, as Meriweather did earlier this week, will cause plenty of players to experience paralysis by analysis.

• Way too much drama. Will the NFL start getting infiltrated by histrionic flopmeisters like Cristiano Ronaldo or Vlade Divac? If the NFL starts ejecting players for some of these hits, that wouldn’t surprise me at all. As it is now, I’ve noticed some quarterbacks who, after getting knocked to the ground while releasing a pass, seem to reach for their helmets no matter where the contact actually occurred. Can’t you picture receivers who get blown up over the middle slumping to the ground and holding their heads as if concussed, only to bounce up and return to the game after the defender in question has been disciplined?

This is not to say that I have a problem with the league’s attempts to address player-safety issues in a dramatic and progressive way. I’ve been concerned about the horrific effects of head trauma for some time, and I believe that to some extent the players have to be saved from themselves.

Blatant helmet-to-helmet shots such as Meriweather’s are egregious and should be disciplined accordingly, and I like to think that defensive players can be taught to avoid hits to the head and neck. Realistically, however, I know that football is an intensely violent game played at high speeds with moving parts and split-second instincts which make precision impossible under such circumstances.

If defenders believe that their best efforts to break up a play can, through matters beyond their control, lead to severe financial and competitive consequences, they’ll inevitably become more tentative – and the game will suffer.

In an era in which so many rules changes have been enacted to enhance offensive football, the defender’s last and most powerful weapon is the ability to intimidate – typically through raw, physical collisions with his opponent. There’s a reason quarterbacks can’t just pick apart the middle of the field by zipping underneath passes to quick receivers with the ability to make one cut and turn those plays into touchdown. That reason, summed up in a single word, is fear.

My fear is that on Sunday, and on future Sundays, there will be defensive backs and linebackers who are scared away from playing as aggressively as they have in the past.

If so, the game itself will have taken a devastating hit.


The Titans’ defensive line will dominate the Eagles’ offensive line and harass Kevin Kolb(notes) in an emphatic victory in Nashville on Sunday. … Donovan McNabb(notes) will shine in his hometown as the Redskins keep the heat on Jay Cutler(notes) and upset the Bears. … Get ready for Dez Bryant’s(notes) coming-out party at Cowboys Stadium on Monday night as Dallas shows a pulse by beating the Giants.


San Diego, where the Chargers will either save their season with a stirring victory over the Patriots or take another sad step toward irrelevance. The fans at Qualcomm Stadium will be hoping it turns out like the two teams’ previous meeting there while in New England they’ll be harkening back to blissful memories of this ’06 divisional-round playoff game, which ended up being Marty Schottenheimer’s last as the Chargers’ coach.


1. After seeing JaMarcus Russell(notes), in an interview with Showtime’s "Inside the NFL," say, “I don’t know where it all went wrong,” Raiders owner Al Davis sat up in bed in his hotel room near the Oakland airport and screamed, “EVERY-[expletive]-WHERE!!!”

2. Upon learning that Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginny, sought a meeting with Brandeis University law professor Anita Hill, Coca Cola offered to sponsor (and cater) the prospective sit-down.

3. There are a lot of people from Bobby Petrino’s 2007 Falcons staff who think Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s depiction of his former boss as a “gutless bastard” was way off base.


James Harrison and the Steelers went to work for me last Sunday, serving up a low-stress, 28-10 victory over the Browns that didn’t leave me any lighter in the wallet (or contemplating retirement). Now Pittsburgh joins the Colts, Saints, Patriots, Falcons and Titans on the list of teams I’m not allowed to pick the rest of the way. Given that each of those teams is ranked in the top 10 of my current 32 Questions, I wouldn’t be crazy enough to burn yet another highly rated power, would I? Uh … yeah, actually I would. The Ravens are hosting the Bills, and I simply can’t resist. Besides, when I’m reduced to picking teams like the Bills to win in December – if I get that far – the entertainment value will be tremendous.


A few weeks ago, UCSB women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb was feeling pretty, pretty good about her other team, the VIP Room. Four consecutive fantasy league defeats later, her enthusiasm has been substantially curbed. “This is a Monday night massacre,” Gottlieb said while watching the Titans roll the Jags – and The VIP Room (2-4) blow a small lead. “We have [Mike] Sims-Walker, who’s doing nothing, and we didn’t play [Kenny] Britt, who has a touchdown. The opponent has [Rob] Bironas. This is sickening.” Even worse, Gottlieb’s top two players, Peyton Manning(notes) and Jahvid Best(notes), have byes this week as she battles 4-2 Dear Meat (Tom Brady, Ray Rice(notes), Brandon Marshall(notes), Terrell Owens(notes), Hakeem Nicks(notes), Jason Witten(notes)).

I did what I could: First I advised her to pick up Tashard Choice(notes) in the hope that the Cowboys might trade Marion Barber(notes) before the trade deadline. When that didn’t happen, I told her to cut Choice and sign Steve Breaston(notes), who, when healthy, is an explosive No. 2 receiver and return threat. She swapped the Cowboys defense for the Broncos (who host the anemic Raiders) and cut Sims-Walker (“Punishment for Monday night,” in her words) to pick up an extra kicker in Ryan Longwell(notes), as stalwart Nick Folk(notes) has a bye. This week she’s starting Jay Cutler for Manning, Beanie Wells(notes) for Best and Jermaine Gresham(notes) for Chris Cooley(notes), who’s coming off a concussion. And I reminded her that Mike Wallace(notes) (with Ben Roethlisberger(notes) back), Marshawn Lynch(notes) (post-trade to the Seahawks), Greg Jennings(notes) (complained about role in offense, plus more balls with Jermichael Finley(notes) out) should theoretically be on the rise in weeks to come.

In other words, she’s in trouble.

(Speaking of trouble, be sure to watch me and Y! Sports guru Brad Evans argue about the Kolb vs. Michael Vick(notes) dilemma, the slumping fortunes of Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) and whether Randy Moss(notes) or Deion Branch(notes) has greater value on this week’s episode of “Fantasy and Reality.” And if you’ve got a question for next week, send it to


Since I have very little desire to talk about football at this current juncture, let’s focus on Kirk Everist’s top-ranked water polo team, which is coming off a 12-9 victory at USC last Saturday (hey, somebody had to do it) and hosts No. 7 Pacific at Spieker Pool on Friday night. Junior attacker Ivan Rackov, the reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation player of the week, has been a slayer in a Speedo, with lots of backup from his talented teammates. Also Friday night, Cal’s fifth-ranked women’s volleyball team visits No. 2 Stanford in a battle for first place in the Pac-10, with senior setter Carli Lloyd running the show and junior outside hitter Tareh Murrey patrolling the Maples Pavilion airspace. Finally, a three-word reminder: Save Cal Rugby.


McMillan debate Upshot


With Brady and Deion Branch back together in New England and making beautiful music together once more, the dynamic duo can't help but riff on the old days. Here's what I imagine them spitting on the flight to San Diego, to the tune of Weezer's ''Memories."

Messing with Charlie's script before we went and played
Clownin' Belichick back before Mangini was Fredo
Watchin' all the secret videotapes of the Jets
Listening to Rodney Harrison(notes) complain 'bout his lost game checks

Make us want to go back there, back there
All the memories
Make us want to go back there, back there
All the victories
How can we make it back there, back there?
We want to be there again

Messing with the journalists and telling stupid lies
They had a feeling that something was up because injuries were a surprise
In fact we didn't know what Hoody wanted half of the time
He just said 'It is what it is' and served us humble pie

Make us want to go back there, back there
All the victories
Make us want to go back there, back there
All the Super Bowls
How can we make it back there, back there?
We want to be there again

Now we got so many people that we got to look out for
Welker, Hernandez and Rob Gronkowksi there's so many ways to score
BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes) runnin', Meriweather and Mayo
But without Izzo and Vrabel we're so freakin' bored!

Memories Make us want to go back there, back there
All the memories
Make us want to go back there, back there
All the victories
How can we make it back there, back there?
We want to be there again