By suspending Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather for two games, the NFL sent its strongest message yet to a player who ignored previous ones. Meriweather has a history of being disciplined for illegal hits to the head, and he was penalized for two more on Sunday during the Redskins’ victory over the Chicago Bears. For Meriweather’s sake, hopefully the league has his attention now.
There’s no place for Meriweather’s style of play in today’s NFL, which in recent seasons has attempted to reduce head injuries through rules changes. With what we’ve learned about the dangers linked to concussions, we know Meriweather is a hazard to himself as well as anyone unfortunate enough to be on the field with him. It’s time for Meriweather to smarten up, or be prepared to face longer league-imposed timeouts for his reckless behavior.
He also was fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit during the Redskins’ loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 15 (Meriweather later in the game suffered a concussion himself while leading with his helmet to make a tackle). That’s three incidents in only six games this season. And his career list includes two fines for helmet-to-helmet hits while he was with the New England Patriots and Chicago Bears.
We’re now familiar with the horrors of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, as it’s commonly known. We’re aware of the pain some NFL athletes have endured long after their playing days are over from the progressive degenerative disease, discovered in the brains of multiple deceased former NFL players. It’s associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression and depression.
Studies also have determined NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. Even physically gifted NFL players can’t absorb what some physicians describe as low-impact car crashes on every play without it eventually taking a toll.
It would be irresponsible for the NFL to acknowledge the risks associated with constant blows to the head, then decline to enforce its own rules intended to protect players. That’s the big picture the Redskins missed while rushing to Meriweather’s defense.
In supporting Meriweather, who has appealed the suspension, several of his teammates bemoaned the fact that rules changes have made it harder on defensive backs to do their jobs. On fast-paced plays, they say, it’s difficult for defensive backs to make quick decisions about where they should strike ball carriers.
To be sure, the NFL’s crackdown on hits to the heads of players deemed to be in defenseless positions, such as a quarterback delivering a pass or a wide receiver making a catch, has made life more complicated for defensive players. Players have told me they’re sometimes hesitant to play with all-out intensity because of all the new safety measures.
There’s only one appropriate response to those complaints: Good. If the choice is between improved safety and the old way of doing things, when hits to the head were considered the price of doing business in the NFL, then there’s really no choice at all. At least the league’s decision-makers get that.
It is fair, however, to question the NFL’s motives for its increased emphasis on the issue. The league’s enlightened stance came only after intense criticism over its handling of head injuries by players. This past summer, the NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement with former players who sued the league, claiming it misled them over the sport’s dangers.
But regardless of what spurred the league to take action, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is now on the right side of the issue. Goodell says he is determined to change the game.
For the Redskins, Meriweather’s suspension couldn’t occur at a worse time. There’s never an ideal moment to lose your most-talented safety, and Washington could be without Meriweather with the high-powered offenses of the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers up next on the schedule.
In NFL passing yards, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers rank first and second this season. Manning leads the league in touchdown passes and Rivers is tied for second. Meriweather is considered vital to Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s pass coverage plans.
Haslett could have two big holes to fill in the secondary this week. The status of Reed Doughty, Washington’s other starting safety, is unclear after Doughty suffered a concussion in the victory over the Bears.
Not surprisingly, Redskins fans are frustrated. The season already has been a major disappointment, and now the league has come down on Meriweather.
With everything we now know about head injuries, though, here’s the important question for Redskins fans: If you had a son who played in the NFL, would you want as many rules as possible in place to protect him? The answer is as clear as the league’s message to Meriweather.