NFL vows to crack down on dangerous, illegal hits after series of head injuries

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 12:03 AM

A day after an unusual series of player head injuries shocked football fans and alarmed the sport's officials, the National Football League vowed Monday to crack down on dangerous, illegal hits with more severe disciplinary measures.

Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, said players could be suspended without pay for illegal hits to an opponent's head - even for a first offense - a stronger measure than the fines that apparently have had little effect on the problem. The new sanctions will begin this weekend.

"We need to dispel the notion that you get a free pass for a first offense," Anderson said. "We're going to another level of accountability."

Sunday appeared to be one of the worst days in recent memory for player head injuries, though recent league-wide efforts to protect athletes may mean there is now closer scrutiny and more careful accounting of the blows.

It came at a time of heightened concern over head injuries in many sports, from youth leagues to the professional ranks, and a day after a Rutgers University player was paralyzed below the neck while making a tackle on a kickoff return. On Tuesday, officials from all levels of hockey will meet in an attempt to reduce the frequency of head injuries in that sport.

The victims of Sunday's mayhem included Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, one of the team's most popular players and its second-leading receiver, who suffered a concussion in the team's loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson suffered a severe concussion when he was leveled by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who was injured himself in the collision. Both players lay on the field for several minutes before they were helped off.

Two Cleveland Browns players, wide receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, suffered head injuries on second-quarter hits by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Detroit Lions linebacker Zack Follett was immobilized, taken from the field on a cart and hospitalized overnight after a helmet-to-helmet hit with a New York Giants player on a kickoff. The NFL's crackdown would not apply to that hit, but the league has enacted other measures in recent years to try to make kickoffs safer.

"It seemed like every time you turned around, there was another player on the ground for an extended period," Anderson said. "We feel compelled to be aggressive and proactive. We don't want another Darryl Stingley on one of our fields."

Stingley, a wide receiver with the New England Patriots, suffered a broken neck in an on-field collision with Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum during an exhibition game in August 1978 and was left a quadriplegic. He spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair and died in 2007 at age 55. Tatum's hit was legal under the sport's rules at the time.

The violence and resulting injuries brought calls for action from several quarters, including former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, a ferocious tackler during his years in the league.

"You didn't get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand," Harrison said on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" telecast, according to a written transcript provided by the network. "You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates [for] not being there.

"But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars. [Nothing will change] until the NFL takes time and says, 'You know what, we're going to really protect our players. We're going to suspend these guys, not one game but possibly two or more games.' "

Anderson said he and other league officials paid attention to Harrison's comments and similar ones by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Colts coach Tony Dungy on the same telecast.

"It's not just helmet-to-helmet hits," Anderson said in a telephone interview. "Hits to the head that are flagrant and egregious and against the rules, we're going to circle back and take a look at them. The events of [Sunday] were certainly disturbing to all of us."

The NFL has enacted rules in recent years to protect players, including quarterbacks and wide receivers who are deemed to be defenseless on plays. Defenders first were barred from delivering helmet-to-helmet hits on such players. Last offseason, those protections were extended to make other hits to the head - those with a defender's shoulder or forearm - illegal.

Dungy said, according to NBC's transcript: "These guys are not doing this on purpose. But they've got to lower their strike zone, change it. We had this with the quarterbacks a few years ago and we got the defenders to change. You have to protect these receivers."

Thom Mayer, the medical director for the NFL Players Association, said the sport has made progress on concussion prevention. The league needs to continue to focus on all of the issues, not just punishing players for illegal hits, he said.

"This is very much an evolution on all fronts - the science of the long-term effects, the science of the helmets and the rules as well," Mayer said Monday. ". . . It's all part of a process, an evolution. To simply say let's punish the player, that strikes me as a little naive. Let's acknowledge it's a dangerous game and let's do all we can to make it safer."

Not all players expressed support for stricter disciplinary measures for illegal hits.

"When you're playing football [and] you're going to deliver a hit, it's not like you really try to hit somebody in the head," said Redskins fullback Mike Sellers. "It's just you're trying to deliver a blow, and sometimes it just ends up like that. Hopefully the league will be a little more lenient on some of this stuff and not crack down as hard as they've been."

But Anderson said the league's new approach will be put in effect for next weekend's games.

"I believe players can adjust their play if they really want to," he said. "If there are suspensions involved, coaches will coach and players will play a certain way."

Robinson received a 15-yard penalty for his crushing tackle of Jackson, but James Harrison was not penalized for either of his hits during the Steelers' win over the Browns. Harrison hit Cribbs helmet to helmet while Cribbs was carrying the ball on a running play. But helmet-to-helmet hits on a ball carrier are permissible under NFL rules. Harrison later hit Massaquoi in the helmet following an incomplete pass.

Anderson said Monday that Harrison's hit on Massaquoi should have been penalized during the game and is subject to a fine.

"We're not going to make an excuse," Anderson said. "We missed a call out there. We don't know why we missed it. That should have been called. But as you know, if we detect a foul as we handle our review, we'll handle it as a foul."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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