It's a fine line that the NFL walks in the 21st century.
As evidence mounts about the severe long-term effects of head trauma, the NFL has made player safety a point of emphasis over the past several seasons.
However, as the NFL makes several rule changes to make the game "safer," some critics have questioned whether the game that remains is actually football at all.
Could the NFL be killing the sport despite its efforts to save it?
The latest rule to draw the ire of some players and fans is the "crown of the helmet" rule that was instituted this year. Outside of the tackle box, both offensive and defensive players are no longer allowed to lower their helmet before initiating contact.
The most affected position will be the running backs, who can no longer drop their hats and bulldoze opponents.
The rule was met with derision from players on both sides of the ball. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison took to Twitter to voice his displeasure:
Some of these rules are just ridiculous. Next rule proposal should be to change from NFL to NFFL #nationalflagfootballleague— Brian Robison (@Brian_Robison) March 20, 2013
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte all but said that he'll ignore it:
Wow so they really passed that rule...last time I checked football was a contact sport. Calling bank now to set up my lowering the boom fund— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) March 20, 2013
Forte wasn't the only ball-carrier who wasn't happy. Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens echoed those sentiments, telling Ryan Mink of the team's website, "Not one running back, you ask anyone in the league, not one is going to change their game. People are just going to have to deal with the consequences the first couple years."
All-time greats such as Eric Dickerson bemoaned the rule, although Alex Marvez of Fox Sports pointed out an interesting fact about Dickerson's issues with the rule:
Funny to hear Eric Dickerson kvetching about helmet rule change when he's part of the class-action concussion lawsuit against the NFL— Alex Marvez (@alexmarvez) March 20, 2013
And that's the elephant in the room. The NFL may proclaim that they're all about player safety, but attempts to stretch the regular season to 18 games seem to indicate that concern has its limits.
However, you can bet the rent that the NFL will do whatever it can to protect its investment. The horror stories about the post-NFL lives of players like San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, and the long-term dangers of repeated concussions are bad for business.
So are multimillion-dollar lawsuits in the face of ever-growing medical and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the long-term effects of concussions are exponentially more severe than was believed even 20 years ago.
The NFL's hands are tied. Even if it couldn't care less, it has to pretend to, lest it be legislated or litigated right into oblivion.
So any number of rules have been passed. Kickoffs were moved forward and the three-man wedge on returns was outlawed. And if you launch yourself through the air at a receiver, you're going to get flagged, fined and possibly suspended.
These rule changes have shown both on the field and in the players' wallets. As this chart shows, personal foul penalties jumped by over 30 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to nflpenalties.com.
Fines, on the other hand, have eclipsed $2 million in two of the past three years, according to justfines.com. Last year, they approached the $3 million threshold.
The problem, in the eyes of many fans, is this:
That hit would be a penalty in the NFL. In fact, as the result of a new rule instituted by the NCAA this year, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would be ejected if that happened again.
Fans across football love plays like that (it's quite possibly the best hit I've ever seen), and when rules are instituted that effectively ban them, you get responses like Robison's and this one.
On some level, their outrage is at least understandable. Football and hitting are inextricably linked. Contact is as much a part of the sport as touchdowns, and more than a few fans would much rather see a big hit than a long pass play.
Every one of those hits is illegal by today's standards, and yet that video is all but guaranteed to draw at least one "ooooohhhh!" from everyone who watches it. It wasn't that long ago that we were celebrating something like that:
Fans look at million-dollar football players, many of whom don't like the rules, and say, "Hey, football is a dangerous game. The players know that going in. Let 'em play."
The problem with that thinking is that the long-term dangers of the game are only now beginning to truly come to light, and even then, good luck convincing young men in peak physical condition that the future risk isn't worth the present reward. Especially when they are doing what they love.
The thing is, this latest rule is being held up as the ruination of all things football before we ever see it implemented. Can we at least wait and see how the rule is enforced before freaking out about it?
There was a ton of hand-wringing about moving the kickoffs, helmet-to-helmet contact and the rules that protect quarterbacks. There are critics of all those rules, and at least some of their criticisms have merit.
Is the NFL in danger of becoming soft?
Still, none of those rules has "ruined" football, and as sports go, it's not soft.
We can still have the game we love without taking unnecessary risks with the lives of the young men who play it.
Earl Campbell, whose famous hit I used above as an example of what running backs can't do under the new rule, had his playing career cut short by the pounding he took and has trouble walking now,Chip Brown of The Columbus Dispatch reports.
Shouldn't the NFL try to do better by Forte than they did Campbell?
Every era has played under a set of rules that were more strict than the era that came before it. Deacon Jones is one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, but guess what? Most of his pass-rushing moves (including his famous head-slap) are no-nos now.
There are other steps that can be taken too. The new rule forcing players to wear thigh and knee pads is a step in the right direction. Improved helmet technology (and making players wear better-fitting helmets) is an even better one.
However, to say that the "crown of the helmet" rule, or any of the recent rules changes, is making the NFL "soft" just doesn't ring true. Bigger and stronger players are flying around the field faster than ever before. Three-hundred-twenty-pound linemen still dish out all kinds of punishment in the trenches that most fans never even notice.
Seriously, spend a while watching an offensive lineman, receivers blocking downfield or a linebacker trying to fight his way to that running back who can't drop his head anymore.
Do that, and you'll notice that the NFL isn't soft.