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

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; D4

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.

Some said that little changed in this past weekend's games.

"I don't think it affected us," New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said after Monday night's win over the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Tex. "You have to understand how we play the game. We just go out and play. I'd rather get fined than let the guy go free and get a touchdown. I don't think it was in the back of our minds. I think guys just went out and played football."

The Giants knocked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo from Monday night's game with a fractured left clavicle. That came after another marquee quarterback, the Minnesota Vikings' Brett Favre, emerged from Sunday's game with an avulsion fracture and a stress fracture in his ankle. But Anderson said the NFL acted last week to address the issue of head and neck injuries that can be life-altering, not merely career-altering, for players.

"It's a macho thing when players say, 'I'm not going to change,' " Tucker said. "I think what they mean is they're going to continue to be aggressive and continue to hit as hard as they can. But they will lower their target area. That's what we saw. All those people who say fines aren't a deterrent to that - I'm tired of hearing that. . . . I don't care how much James Harrison is making - $75,000 is a lot of money."

Even so, Reeves said, there inevitably will be violent hits in games in coming weeks.

"I don't think anyone is out there trying to hurt someone intentionally," Reeves said by phone. "But you're still going to see violent hits. The game is so fast. If you see someone coming at you like that, your natural tendency is to drop your head, and that's when you see some of those hits like that."

But the former NFL player and longtime coach said he doubts there will be another weekend of hits any time soon comparable to the ones that prompted the league to act.

"I thought the games [last weekend] were hard-hitting, but I didn't see any hits like we saw the week before," Reeves said. "But then again, I didn't see any hits like that up until then, either. I hadn't seen anything like that for a while. I just think it was an unusual week to have that many hits like that."

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