Soapbox Sound-Off: Policing Tackles and Preventing Concussions

Florham Park, N.J.- You don’t become a writer without enjoying a nice long rant every now and again. So today, I take to my soapbox that is this website and I cherish the opportunity to rant in a properly structured form about a topic that is not just taking up a large chunk of the news cycle, but is also of the utmost importance.

On Sunday afternoon I sat at my house, where I have DirectTV and the NFL ticket, with multiple televisions set up in the same room so that I can watch three games at once. I keep the Red Zone channel on one television at all times and I switch back and forth on the other two so I can consume as much football as possible. Within a span of no more than 10 minutes I saw three huge devastating hits that had knocked four people out, leaving them laying on the ground with no movement.

All four players would get up and walk off the field, but none would return and this would set the stage for, concussions and policing hits becoming the hot topic issue for the week. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that this will be the focus of intense scrutiny and for good reason.

The question is, what can really be done about it?

Safety Jim Leonhard made what appeared to be a great clean hit on the Broncos Brandon Lloyd on Sunday, but was flagged for, "unnecessary roughness." Starting this weekend a borderline hit like that could draw a suspension instead of just a 15-yard flag. (Jetsinsider.com Photo).

I was going to wake up yesterday and immediately start to write, but I decided to take the day to listen to what direction the talking heads on television where going to go before I could try to make sense of it all inside my own head.

Now comes the part where I have to carefully filter my thoughts out onto my computer and to yours.

Lets start by stating the obvious, no one and I mean no one wants to see players laid out motionless on the field after taking a potentially career, or even life, threatening hit. That much I think we can all agree on, after that is where, to quote the title of the hip-hop group The Roots best album’s title, “Things Fall Apart.”

The most difficult and complicated aspect of this problem is the fact that football is such a dangerous and violent sport, but you know what? That’s also the reason so many people love the sport and it’s also the way the players have been trained to play the sport since they were little kids.

No one enjoyed watching that collision between Dunta Robinson and DeSean Jackson, but think about this for a second. If neither player had gotten hurt and they both had immediately hopped up off the field, that hit would still be leading all the highlight reels, just for a completely different reason. It would have been a highlight celebrating a, “Jacked-Up,” moment to borrow from the old ESPN segment, unfortunately though that’s not how it worked out as both players suffered serious concussions.

I don’t hesitate to say serious concussions even for a second. I’m no doctor, nor do I pretend to know anything about head injuries other than this, any head injury is serious. Even if the damage isn’t serious immediately there is no telling what type of damage might be done long term.

But how does one relegate something that is as big a reason as any that we love the sport? How can you possibly expect players to change the way they have been programmed to play their entire lives? Where do you draw the line and what is a proper punishment for crossing that line?

These are just a small sample size of the wide variety of questions that come spiraling out of control when taking a long hard look at this epidemic. And yes I don’t hesitate to say epidemic either, because all of this on one Sunday, especially following a Saturday when the junior defensive tackle from Rutgers, Eric LeGrand, was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle in their game against Army, is simply too much to ignore.

Yesterday I heard many different theories and ideas of ways to go about changing this problem for the better, most of them were interesting and had valid points, but all of them were filled with more holes than the Chicago Bears offensive line.

One theory that I heard revisited yesterday was that the helmets and extra pads are as big of a problem as anything else. This theory is hardly new and while everyone who mentioned it yesterday stopped short of saying they should get rid of the extra pads and or maybe go back to more of a old-school leather style helmet, that is an argument that has been made multiple times over the years. On face value it’s really hard to mount an argument against this case, mainly because of one reason, the helmet has become a very dangerous weapon.

The argument goes that if the players didn’t have these huge demonstrative helmets they would learn to hit with their shoulders instead of their head. Supporters of this argument often point to rugby, where the play is just as violent, but there are far fewer concussions because the players don’t wear helmets and learn to make plays without making contact with each others heads.

All of this sounds good, in theory. The problem is there is no way you could possibly implement this into action anytime soon. Let me start by stating that I find the rugby argument to be irrefutable, they have it figured out better than the NFL and that would probably be the wisest course of action the NFL could start to take.

There’s one tiny detail people are missing about this argument though. Yes it works for rugby, but do you know why it works for Rugby? Because that is how they are taught to play the game since they were little kids, so it’s a natural transition to when they play as adults.

Imagine trying to get NFL player’s to change everything they have ever learned about how to play football and tackle, it would never work. These players have been playing a certain way their entire lives, they have taken countless reps, making the same type of movements. Once a player hits the high school level this type of tackling is programmed into their mentality. If the NFL ever wants to consider making a change like this, they are going to have start in the pop-warner leagues and slowly implement the rule changes in as that group of kids continues to move up to higher playing levels, such as high school. Then four years later you could try it with college and then the NFL, but let’s be honest even that provides tricky details.

Will everyone be on board? What do you do about any veteran players who are still playing when the rule changed is implemented? I already said they won’t be able to adjust, so am I suggesting they just get run out of the league? No, no I’m not, I have no idea how the particulars would work, and if it was attempted I have no doubt that it would be unfair to many people in some way, but this is the best long term solution I can think of for the sport. That doesn’t mean I’m saying I’m right and no one else has a better idea, it’s just I haven’t heard anything I think to be a better long term solution, but hey that’s just me.

Another intriguing solution I heard yesterday was brought up by ESPN commentator, and better be future Hall-of-Famer, Cris Carter was that maybe the league should look into making the field wider. I’ve heard this argument made before, but never as a safety issue. Whenever I heard the argument made previously it would always drive me absolutely bonkers, because my favorite part of football is watching great defense.

Football is naturally set up for the offense to have the advantage, the offense is running forwards all the while knowing exactly what route they and their teammates are taking, meanwhile the defenders start running backwards and are left to guess at which direction the guy they are covering is going. So when I watch a great defense that covers every inch of the field, and yes delivers bone-rattling hits, that’s what I want to see. I’ve always said I’d rather my favorite team have the best defense in football and miss the playoffs then have my team be the highest-scoring team every year who consistently makes the playoffs, with the obvious caveat being as long as we aren’t talking about winning a Super Bowl, I’ll take one of those anyway I can get it.

With the stricter no contact after five-yards and pass interference penalties implemented ever since the Colts whined to the league about getting mugged by the Patriots in the playoffs years ago, the advantage has slipped even more into the offenses favor. Now you add the extra focus on protecting the quarterback and hitting, “helpless and defenseless,” receivers and defenders are handcuffed by what they are allowed to do.

I don’t want to sound like I’m in favor of late hits or cheap shots, I’m absolutely not, but there needs to be some wiggle room. Defenders, especially corners and safeties are taught to separate man from ball, so how do you determine if they were simply doing what they have been taught, or they had malicious intent? And I can’t even remember when I started to lose track of how many horrendous penalties have been called for defenders merely grazing the quarterback or god-forbid trying to tackle the quarterback while he still has the ball in his hands.

Anyway back to Cris Carter’s point of widening the field. Again without the injury factor being included in the argument I wouldn’t even listen to such an argument, but Carter raises some valid points and after all he has proven himself to be much more of an expert on football than I am.

His points are similar to points being made about the same problem in hockey. The speed, strength and size of the players keeps growing and the only thing that isn’t changing is the field of play. With the players all getting bigger, faster and stronger it is in fact making the field smaller, which leads to holes slamming closed faster than ever and leaving these players to take brutal hit after brutal hit. So the idea is widen the field and you create more running room, making it harder for defenders to tee-up and knock a guy out.

The problem with this of course is that it will open things up more for the offense and make it harder for defenders to even get a hand on these quick strong running backs and receivers. Imagine widening the field even just an extra 10 yards on each side, who in the world is going to stop Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson then? How could that even be defended? And please save me the, well then maybe you could add an extra defender idea. Wouldn’t that completely defeat the purpose of expanding the field for safety reasons?

As much as I hate to say it, because I don’t want to watch the league become even more of an offensive league, we are soon approaching a point where even defensive minded people like myself are going to have to choose which would we rather see, more offense and less serious injuries or same offense but an ever growing amount of serious injuries? I love my defense, I love soul-crushing hits, but I hate to see these players (who literally risk their life and limbs to entertain us, yes I realize they get fairly compensated, but I doubt many fans would put the same amount of work and risk into it as these guys do) get hurt and if it turns out that people think widening the field is the safest way to avoid these injuries, then I could see myself begrudgingly being talked into it.

Another thought that was mentioned on Sunday night football, by NBC commentator and former head-hunting expert Rodney Harrison was that fines won’t do anything to deter guys from making these types of hits. Harrison said he used to take $50,000 aside every year to pay the fines he knew he would get to establish his reputation as someone you were scared to take a hit from. How did they NFL get his attention? They suspended him, once they took away his ability to be out on the field he got the message to tone it down.

Again some valid points made, but as always you have to consider the source. As a fan, especially a fan of defense as I previously stated, Harrison was always one of my favorites to watch I have a great deal of respect for him as a player, but he was not your average defender. He admittedly took cheap shots to prove a point, so when he got suspended he could tone that down, but what about the players who were just trying to make a play the way they were taught to and because of whatever reason they end up delivering an accidental illegal hit, do they automatically get suspended too? And who and how does one make a determination about if the hit was made with intent to injury or not?

It seems someone in the NFL league office was watching Harrison talk on Sunday night, because yesterday the NFL announced that starting this weekend the NFL will dole out suspensions to anyone who commits a, “devastating hit,” or, “head shot.” Listen I get the head shots part, but devastating hits? This is still football right? A devastating hit is exactly what the players have been trained to do, and what exactly is the NFL’s strict definition of a devastating hit? Also keep in mind they will suspend a player immediately on their first offense, so it’s not like it’s even a case for repeat offenders only, which is something I’m sure we could all live with.

Do we really need to implement more subjective rulings into the game of football? Imagine the ammo the NFL would be handing conspiracy theorist when they came down hard on one player for a borderline intentional illegal hit and they don’t punish another player for the same type of hit, because it was deemed unintentional.

Sure if it’s cut and dry, blatantly obvious that a player is out there headhunting then go ahead and suspend him, but as awful as that collision between Robinson and Jackson was to watch I’m still not sure that there was anything illegal about the hit. I’m sure many will argue with me on this, but I don’t think there was any malicious attempt to harm Jackson. To my eyes it looked like Robinson laid into him with his shoulder and the collision caused some incidental helmet contact. Yes you could argue if Robinson kept his head up instead of lowering it with his shoulder the helmet contact would of been avoided, but that is much more dangerous for Robinson and leaves him in danger of getting his head and neck snapped backwards.

It’s a close debatable call in my opinion, however I don’t think there was anything illegal there, but given the emphasis on player safety I’m okay with the 15-yard penalty, but in no way do I think that hit merits a suspension. To make this even more complicated, think about how many times you watched a football game and saw a close to an illegal penalty that didn’t draw a flag, but did provoke the announcers to guess that a certain player would be hearing from the league about a fine for the hit. So now you risk a player possibly being suspended for something that the refs on the field didn’t even think was illegal? Sure go for it it’s not like that could cause any possible complaints or disagreements with anyone right?

The biggest problem with handing out suspensions and even calling the 15-yard penalty is it’s such a fine line and is so subjective there is no way this could be handled fairly across the board in everyone’s eyes. Take the hit that Jim Leonhard made near the end of the third quarter against the Broncos on Sunday.

On third-and-six from the Broncos own 38-yard-line Kyle Orton delivered a pass down the sidelines to Brandon Lloyd to the Jets 32-yard-line. As Lloyd prepared to plant his two feet inbounds before falling out of bounds Leonhard lowered his shoulder directly into Lloyd’s chest trying to separate ball from receiver, even though the Jets lost the challenge it sure appeared that Leonhard succeeded as he did force Lloyd to bobble the catch temporarily, I won’t bother debating the actual challenge, but I will flat out say that was a horrible call to throw a flag on that hit.

The point is, Leonhard made a perfectly clean hit, he made a play on the ball while Lloyd was in the field of play, there was no helmet contact whatsoever and not only did the Broncos get the completed pass, but hey tack on an extra 15-yards because that Jets defender hit you really hard, I mean it was a clean and completely legal hit, but it looked like it might of hurt so here’s 15 extra yards for your pain and suffering.

If that same exact play happens to another player next week, then that player is going to have to worry about a possible suspension, for something that isn’t even illegal, I need someone to explain to me how that’s going to work out fairly and keep everyone happy.

So now that we have come full circle we are back at the question of, what can be done about this problem?

There is validity to every argument made, but there are just as many potential problems that will arise from these solutions. I’m okay with suspensions to players who are considered repeat offenders, but there should probably be some sort of neutral board set up to debate if a player seems to be intentionally aiming to hurt players instead of just leaving it up to one person to decide. I’m not okay with suspending a player for what will sure to be many borderline and some just not even close to illegal, “devastating hits.”

I’m all for trying to change the way the players hit and making the helmet less of a weapon, but you can’t teach old football players new tricks so that is something that will be years away from being effective. I can’t stand the idea of making it easier of the offense by making the field wider, but as I said before I may eventually be willing to concede that, that is something that needs to be done for safety issues, of course I’m going to need to be sold more on the issue of just how much this will help avoid these types of injuries.

The short answer to the question of what can be done about this is simply, I don’t know.

It’s just a too complex and subjective issue to have a definitive easy answer. I am always willing to accept that I don’t have the answer for everything and this topic is no different, I can speculate and hypothesis all I want, but none of that alone, will do anything to prevent these damaging injuries.

There is however one thing I am 100 percent positively sure of and that is how we can avoid this problem from snowballing completely out of control, here’s an idea mister commissioner, how bout we don’t extend the season to a 18 game schedule?

Listen I’m all for having more football. I’m the same guy who once argued the NFL should expand their practice squads and have the practice squads play in a controlled league over the off-season so fans could still root for their favorite teams all season long, it would work like a minor league system or like NFL Europe was supposed to, but I have since realized the damage to these players bodies would be incalculable and this would greatly shorten the careers of players.

If I, a lowly writer and avid fan of the sport, can see that the 16 game season already takes too much of a toll on players and I, the commissioner and owners all seem to agree that these safety and health issues need to be addressed, how is that I’m the only one out of the those three that see extending the season to 18 games is in direct conflict with the goal of keeping players healthy and safe?

*Steps off soapbox and exits stage left*

One Response to “Soapbox Sound-Off: Policing Tackles and Preventing Concussions”

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