The NFL as you've surely heard by now, is going to take a major step in discipline by suspending players involved in "devastating hits." Normally we stick to our stomping grounds of college football but given both college football's mirroring of the NFL in recent rule changes and our on going dialogue with regards to concussions we felt this would be a good spot to offer some thoughts on the situation. Especially should we see this trickle down into the college game in the coming years.
People, as is so often the case, are skewed too polar on this issue. Team This is Wussification is screaming that this will ruin the game while team Get Serious about Safety wants to outlaw hitting folks and change the nature of the game all together. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Personally, my opposition of the rule is to the vague verbiage and the addition of more judgement calls into the sport. Referees have enough on their plate now, adding more 50-50 subjective calls only creates more chance for them to make a crucial mistake.
That said something has to be done; players have to be protected from themselves and if this is the path that the NFL is taking they need to do it right and that, as it stands now seems impossible. There are a myriad of variables in every "devastating hit" scenario and for this plan to be successful they must attempt to identify these constantly changing aspects in order to pare them down to the minimum observations. Too many variables crowds the pool and makes for ineffective enforcement.
Read more for what variables make enforcement difficult...
So Many Variables?
While I'm sure folks could point to plenty of scientific formulas and other minutia that are way above my comprehension level I'm going to stick to football in this discussion and a few variables that I know and understand very well; physical attributes, body positioning and effect. Originally I was only referencing size when I thought about physical attributes, however, speed and strength belong in that category as well since a player such as James Harrison, who is only listed at 6' 242 lbs, packs a wallop due to his pure power.
Physical Attributes must be brought into account when you begin this discussion because the rule, as it has been discussed, sure places a lot of importance on "how a hit looks" to folks. We'll start with the Dunta Robinson hit from this past weekend on DeSean "I weigh 175 lbs soak and wet" Jackson. It was a punishing blow, didn't appear dirty to me, but it was a quite "devastating" hit by all accounts. However, had Robinson unloaded in that same fashion on his former team Andre Johnson (6'3" 228lbs) perhaps the Texans' wide out gets up, looks at Robinson laying knocked out himself, but continues playing in that football game.
In the case of James Harrison's blow on Mohamed Massaquoi (6'2" 204lbs) if we substitute the WR for a Brandon Jacobs (6'4" 264lbs) and does anyone's view of the situation change?
The point here is two-fold.
First is the simple acknowledgment that size does have a bearing on our views of the severity of a hit but in reality the type of hit shouldn't be altered due to size. A hit coming with bad intentions and against the rules is a hit against the rules regardless of what it looks like due to size disparities. In other words players are taught to hit every player as hard as they can. Whether Harrison or Robinson are hitting a tight end, a 3rd down scatback or a wide receiver they're going to go full tilt, size discrepancy just makes it ugly.
Which brings us to the second point of the size issue, if the way plays look and the "devastating" nature of seeing smaller offensive players be destroyed is where the issue you lies the rule is essentially asking safeties, corners, linebackers and defensive linemen to "size players up" before they make their tackles. Determining if another player is "too small" for them to hit acceptably or if a guy is "big enough" for them to truly unload on through contact.
Asking guys to dial down speed at impact is, worst case scenario, asking for them to get hurt and best case scenario putting defenses at a severe disadvantage; see Mathias Kiwanuka on Vince Young when the NFL went uber-protective of quarterbacks.
Size is a major component of what makes a hit appear to be "devastating" but body positioning is as well. No one cringes or freaks out over a running back and a linebacker meeting face to face in the A-gap. No one goes ape over a defensive end slamming into a guard after a stunt. No, those "ooohs" and "ahhhs" are reserved for the high flying acrobatics that almost always occur down the field or crossing the middle. So much of this issue is being blamed on the defensive players "launching" themselves at the ball carrier. The idea of guys going for the kill shot or leaping to make a play on the receiver in the air. While I don't condone the use of the crown of the helmet, that's where spinal injuries come from, I do think there's a difference between diving and jumping to separate man from ball and the generic term of launching.
Lumping them all in does a disservice to the defense. Is a safety getting off the hash a step too late diving to make a play considered launching? Should he just let the receiver catch the football since he can't run up to bat the ball down in time? Is a linebacker jumping to hit a crossing tight end on a high thrown ball launching? Should he let him catch it and land so as not to leave his feet?
As a defensive back I was taught two things that are in direct disconnect with this idea; separate man from ball AND if he does catch it make him think twice about doing it again. If you're letting guys land or not allowed to dive to collision a receiver at the moment the ball hits his hands how can you get those two objectives accomplished?
Without even taking into account falling and ducking by the offensive or defensive parties it is pretty clear the NFL is going to have their hands full with this aspect of the rule. Where does the "good football play" end and the "devastating hit" sequence begin?
The last variable is one that appears to have the biggest influence on the NFL and fans in general; effect. For this rule to work they must not legislate based upon size, they will struggle to determine malicious vs good football in body positioning but most importantly they cannot allow effect to dictate their rulings. For the implementation of this rule a hit can be no more violent because Player A is knocked out while in same situation Player B pops up off the turf. While effects vary the nature of the hit and delivery of the blow does not change.
In an effort to draw a parallel; horse collar tackles were outlawed due to the numerous knee, lower leg and ankle injuries people were sustaining. In that same vein helmet to helmet contact and spearing have been banned due to spinal injuries as well as head and neck trauma. The penalty for the horse collar tackle doesn't escalate during a game if a player breaks his ankle, it is still a personal foul 15 yard penalty from the spot. So too should the penalty for a malicious helmet to helmet collision remain the same regardless of if the hit player gets up and continues playing the game or is carted off the field.
The fact is there is so much gray, too much gray it seems. Even with all of the replays, the multiple and reverse angles, the super slow motion and the high definition every case is going to be examined through 100 different lenses. What one person sees as a clearly malicious shot by a safety on a streak route another person is going to call good football. What one review official thinks is a poor attempt at a tackle another review official is going to see as a "message sent" to the opposition that the middle of the field is closed for business.
With the NFL moving in this direction let's just hope that they've got a strong committee making these rulings. A group of people who've got experience in the game; on both sides of the ball, in the locker room, field and front office because these suspensions are going to be critical for teams pushing for playoff positioning or jockeying for the final wildcard slot.
And should we see this trickle down into the college game let's hope our conference commissioners are already looking into how to make this work.