NFL's threat to crack down on illegal hits had a quick impact

Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather brought down Chargers wideout Patrick Crayton in Sunday's game, but his hit was legal.
Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather brought down Chargers wideout Patrick Crayton in Sunday's game, but his hit was legal. (Harry How)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

After sparking days of loud controversy, the NFL's threat to crack down on illegal, dangerous hits quietly had the effect that league officials were seeking - at least for last weekend's games.

There were no penalties assessed for illegal hits on defenseless players during Sunday's or Monday's contests. Several people who watched closely said they saw some players take a noticeably different approach, avoiding opportunities to deliver blows to the head or neck of vulnerable opponents.

"I do think it was different," said former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker. "I noticed a couple guys, even after they hit a guy and maybe it was questionable, they put their hands up like a basketball player who doesn't want to get called for a foul. It was very clear to me that guys were very conscious of it, very aware of it."

Said former NFL coach Dan Reeves: "I didn't see any hits that were flagrant where they were going for the head. I do think it got everyone's attention."

Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, announced early last week that the league would more strictly enforce its rules against hits to the head of a player in a defenseless position. Anderson said offenders would be disciplined with tougher penalties that could include a suspension for even a first offense. The warning came one day after an alarming series of hits during Oct. 17 games left several players with head injuries.

The league's new stance prompted a spirited national debate on safety-related issues in football and other sports. Many current and former NFL players said the league was going too far in its attempt to change the violent nature of the sport. League officials said they simply were attempting to make football as safe as possible by bolstering enforcement of rules already on the books.

The league fined three players a total of $175,000 last week for illegal hits the previous Sunday, and put teams on notice with a midweek memo from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accompanied by a video containing examples of legal and illegal hits. It threatened to discipline teams and coaches who fail to teach proper techniques.

"We like to think we're off to a good start in terms of the new emphasis and the recognition that we are going to play aggressively but well within the rules," Anderson told the Associated Press in an interview Monday.

New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather was fined $50,000 by the NFL last week for a hit on Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap. Meriweather delivered some jarring blows during the Patriots' triumph Sunday at San Diego, but they were legal.

"Brandon Meriweather had a hit that was much lower," Tucker, who played for the Washington Redskins and other teams during his NFL career, said by telephone. "It was at the forefront of guys' minds. I'll be curious to see how long that continues. It's all well and good in the short term. Players did play differently. But football players have short memories. I'll be interested to see what happens in three or four weeks."

The NFL's rules prohibit hits to the head of a player in a defenseless position, including a quarterback delivering a pass or a receiver trying to make a catch. The league first barred helmet-to-helmet hits on a defenseless player, then last offseason extended the protection given to a vulnerable player and prohibited hits to the head delivered with the shoulder or forearm. A helmet-to-helmet hit on a ball carrier is legal under NFL rules.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 last week for a hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Harrison briefly threatened to retire, saying he didn't know if he could continue to play effectively under the new enforcement guidelines, but returned to practice the following day and played Sunday for the Steelers without incident.

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