What Constitutes a Dirty Hit in Today's NFL?

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterDecember 11, 2012

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 28:  James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rises after hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills during their game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 28, 2010 in Orchard Park, New York.  Harrison was flagged for roughing the passer during the play. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
Karl Walter/Getty Images

Watch this hit:

How did you react?

Did you wince? Pump your fist? Hiss through your teeth? Make a sound like a freight-train whistle? Did your eyes pop wide open in silent shock? Perhaps you shuddered in revulsion, or jumped up out of your chair and danced like Busta Rhymes.

Maybe some combination of the above.

Like a Rorschach inkblot test, the reaction of an NFL fan to Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays' "de-earing" of Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub says much more about the fan than about Mays.

NFL fans old enough to tie their own shoes remember celebrating every single "de-cleater" and "slobberknocker"; many still do. But those paying attention to the research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or who held their breath while Stewart Bradley staggered or Austin Collie lay unconscious on the field, have a hard time jumping up and cheering for such hits.

The standard for "dirty" hits in the NFL has always been relative. It's also always gotten cleaner as years go by. Former 49ers safety Hardy Brown claimed to have knocked as many as 80 players unconscious over his 12-year career:

According to the Coffin Corner, a publication of the Professional Football Researchers Association, 20 of those KOs reportedly came in 1951 alone. In 1952, Brown made the Pro Bowl. 

Brown probably would have thought Mays weak for only taking off a piece of Schaub's ear and not knocking him unconscious. Then again, Brown died alone in a mental institution.

Recently, the NFL has been changing rules—and enforcement of rules on the books—to protect players from the worst hits. Helmet-to-helmet hits of all kinds, and especially intentional hits on "defenseless players," began drawing flags, fines and suspensions like never before.

Unfortunately, the flags, fines and suspensions rarely agree, and even when they do, it's not always with the rules.

In 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was so confused by the inconsistent on-field penalties and off-field punishment that he considered retirement. "I'm going to sit down and have a serious conversation with my coach tomorrow and see if I can actually play by NFL rules and still be effective," Harrison reportedly told Fox Sports Radio. "If not, I may have to give up playing football."

He didn't, but his decision to keep playing didn't clear up his understanding of the rules. In December 2010, the NFL levied a $25,000 fine on Harrison, bringing his total for the season to an astonishing $125,000.

Harrison, as the New York Times reported, told the Steelers' official website: "The way I play, there is nothing wrong with it. I am not playing dirty. I am not doing anything that is outside of the lines."

But Harrison isn't drawing the lines; the NFL is.

So the league's executive VP of football operations, Ray Anderson, recorded an instructional video showing the difference between "dirty" hits and "clean" hits. Anderson used Harrison's spine-rattling hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, as well as eight others. Unfortunately, it raises almost as many questions as it answers:

As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk pointed out, only four of the six "dirty" hits drew penalty flags from the officials at the time, and one of the three "clean" hits did, too. Also, in a few cases, the sole factor separating clean from dirty was an inch or two separating upper chest from lower head, or top of shoulder from side of helmet.

Recently, Chicago Bears safety Major Wright nearly took Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice's head clean off. Because Rice had half a second to brace himself for the hit, he wasn't technically "defenseless." Because Wright drove his shoulder into the base of Rice's neck, it wasn't technically helmet to helmet:

But does that make it clean? By NFL rules, yes—but it certainly doesn't seem safe. Rice immediately sank to the turf and lay there for several minutes (at the advice of team doctors and his teammates). The play didn't draw a flag or a fine.

So, the referees are having a hard time keeping all the rules straight at speed. They're having a hard time distinguishing shoulders and necks from helmets and facemasks. They're having a hard time keeping straight who's "defenseless" and who isn't. In other words, they're hardly better off than the fans.

The NFL still has work to do here. The clips the NFL shared show defenders who are obviously trying to use their helmets as weapons—but in grayer cases, some attempt has to be made to determine intent.

It'd be better for the game if players clearly trying to execute an illegal hit, like Wright, were punished for the the risk they took, and players making incidental helmet-to-helmet contact allowed to keep their hard-earned money.

It'd also be better for the game if the NFL spent more time and effort emphasizing the right way to tackle at all levels, like USA Football is, than punishing decade-long NFL veterans for playing the game they've played all their lives the way they've always played it.