1. The art of speed and collision
There should be great appreciation for what the NFL is doing when it comes to protecting its players. It has been needed for a while. The game is violent enough, and things don't need to get out of hand. We've seen what happens when violence is excessive for football. So, good for the league.
(You can feel a "but" coming.)
The problem is that the rules to protect players, almost exclusively the quarterback, are close to impossible for defensive players to follow.
The reason is power and speed. And more power and speed. And power and speed on top of power and speed.
The man who hit Drew Brees, leading to the controversial roughing call, is the 49ers' Ahmad Brooks. He's about 6'4" and 250 pounds. If you've ever met Brooks, you know he is a mountain of a human being. Superman wears Ahmad Brooks pajamas.
The prototypical pass-rusher of all time is Lawrence Taylor. No one was better. As physically imposing as Taylor was when he played, standing at 6'3"-ish and in the 230s, Brooks outweighs Taylor by some 20 pounds. Brooks runs an approximate 4.6-second 40-yard dash. That's faster than Taylor.
When Taylor was on the field, he could play—as he would say—like a crazed dog. That aggression could be unfettered. He could absolutely destroy a quarterback, and often did.
Brooks cannot. All of that power and speed has to be channeled into a certain area of the quarterback's body or it's a penalty. In Taylor's day, he could maybe take an extra step and get that extra hit as the quarterback released the pass. Not now. If anything, not only have players lost that extra second Taylor had, they might have lost several.
The rules today are impossible for defensive players because they don't account for the increased speed of the 21st century pass-rusher.
It's almost impossible for someone of Brooks' speed to work within today's rules constraints. Asking Brooks, running as fast as he does, with that kind of power, to change directions at the last second or hit only a certain part of a quarterback is almost an impossible mission. It's like shooting a bullet with a bullet.
The league vehemently disagrees with this. I've spoken several times over the years to Merton Hanks, who oversees the fines and penalties for these types of infractions, about this very subject. Hanks is a smart man and was a brilliant player.
He maintains players have the athleticism to make those last-second adjustments right before hitting the quarterback. Like I said, Hanks was an outstanding player, but I'm starting to think today's defensive player can easily run afoul of the rules.
You can see in the Brooks hit on Brees that at the last second, he tried to move and avoid an even more punishing hit than he delivered but couldn't. I think that's why the hit was clothesline-ish. Because he tried to adjust so as not to commit a penalty yet he was still called for one.
"I didn't hit him with my hand or my helmet," Brooks said (via the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch). "I basically bear-hugged him. That's just how football is played. I think this s*** is bull****. Football, the way they call stuff these days, it's watered down..."
This entire phenomenon is one of football's greatest challenges. The NFL wants the game to be safe while still keeping it resembling football. But controlling the speed and power of players might be impossible.
2. What happened with Wes Welker?
On one catch, Wes Welker was hit hard, and stayed on the ground. He was later ruled to have a concussion.
The interesting part of the story is that Welker returned to the game.
The entire situation shows both the inherent strength and weakness of the NFL's concussion protocols. The NFL has independent neurologists on the sideline to diagnose and treat head injuries. That's good.
The bad part is that concussions are devious injuries. Not even the best doctor in the world can always diagnose them properly because players don't always exhibit concussion symptoms.
This from an NFL source on Welker: "It is not unusual for a person to display no concussion symptoms initially, especially when engaged in vigorous physical activity. The Broncos took him off the field and the medical staff cleared him to return, presumably because he showed no symptoms—he looked fine. A few minutes later, the medical staff determined he was now displaying symptoms, and they removed him from the game and diagnosed [a] concussion."
All indications point to Welker playing this week against his old team, New England.
3. Pass interference
One of the reasons players, coaches and fans get so irate over pass-interference calls is that each crew seems to have a different standard for what pass interference is. The Rob Gronkowski call/non-call is an example of that. One ref sees pass interference. Another calls it off.
The eye of the NFL beholder extends to different officiating crews. As former Packers executive Andrew Brandt tweeted:
Last night's ending shows human element/subjectivity of referees. Probably more than half the crews make that call (and keep it).— Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) November 19, 2013
I've heard similar estimates from several assistant coaches.
Pass interference penalties are called without pattern in some cases, but they are definitely called a lot. As Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter points out (referring to defensive pass interference calls):
there have been 161 PI penalties enforced this year, according to statspass, putting nfl on pace for 241 & a 3rd straight year of 205+.— Jim Trotter (@SI_JimTrotter) November 19, 2013
Take an unevenly called penalty, an evenly called penalty called a great many times, and you will get Gronk-type plays. It's actually shocking there aren't more like that.
4. "Trot for your life"
One last thing on refs...
Why would an official make such a controversial ruling as the one in the Panthers-Patriots game and then bolt without an explanation?
The answer is a simple one and goes back to something an NFL game official once told me. After a controversial call at the end of games, refs want to get the hell off the field as quickly as possible, out of fear for their safety. Some refs don't care about explanations. They care about dodging beer bottles thrown at their heads.
The ref jokingly called the lack of explanation or quick explanation and hastened departure as the "trot-for-your-life" moment.
You don't run off the field, so as not to appear panicked, but you also don't walk, making you a slower target for verbal abuse or worse.
5. Four thousand
Tom Brady this week became just the sixth player in NFL history to have at least 4,000 completions. The other names on the list are, well, fairly stunning:
That is, um, quite a list.
The most interesting thing is that no one will catch Brett Favre. If over the next 20 games, Manning threw 40 completions a game, he'd still be well behind Favre.
6. Cam Newton rising
A stat from SI's Peter King that tells you how good Cam Newton is getting:
Wed in The Season: In last 16 G W-L TD-Int Rating C. Newton 12-4 +16 94.1 T. Brady 12-4 +15 86.8— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) November 19, 2013
7. Football's future
Tales from stories like this one from Sports on Earth's Patrick Hruby will be a constant source of talk and debate. What parents are choosing to do with their children now, in terms of allowing their young children to play football, will shape the future of the NFL.
I'm not one of the sensationalists who believes that if Pop Warner dries up, the future of the NFL is doomed. That's just silly. Many NFL players never played Pop Warner. They started in middle or high school. Plus, there will always be a huge base of players for the NFL to draw from because, despite the risks, there is a great deal of money to be made playing the sport. Economics will always create a huge pool of talent.
The lower Pop Warner numbers are about optics. If younger kids stop playing football because of the sense parents have that it's too dangerous, it can erode the popularity of the sport from the ground level. Football is almost untouchable now, but if the sense grows that it definitely leads to players suffering serious brain trauma, then that is the one thing that can kill the sport: perception.
The potential lack of young players isn't the problem. It's the fact that one day Americans could say they can't willingly support a sport that destroys the mind. That's the real issue.
8. Quarterback controversy in Chicago? No, but...
Jay Cutler is the starter when he returns. There's no doubt about that, but the long-term future at the position is in question.
Josh McCown has demonstrated that he can do what Cutler cannot: limit his mistakes. In the overtime win against Baltimore, he threw for 216 yards and a score. That's on a stormy day on a disastrous field. Cutler would have thrown at least two picks; that's just what he does.
McCown is Alex Smith. He's not overly talented like Cutler, but he's also not error-prone like him.
After watching McCown perform so efficiently in Marc Trestman's system, and with a huge decision looming on Cutler's contract status, the Bears have to be wondering: Is Cutler worth big-time money and a long-term commitment?
9. Um, no, Andre
If you're Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, you can yell at your quarterback. That's fine. You can be upset about how your team stinks. That's fine. You can be upset that you're spending the final years of your NFL career in purgatory on a dysfunctional team. Roger that.
But you cannot walk off the field before the game is over. That's totally unprofessional and unacceptable. And you don't get a pass for that because you're a good guy or because your team is a mess.
10. Trading Big Ben not a horrible idea
#Steelers sources expect Big Ben to ask them to explore trade options after 2013. They fielded offers for him last offseason. Could again— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 10, 2013
It's been some time since Ben Roethlisberger was as publicly angry as he was after this report surfaced.
Roethlisberger went on the Big Ben Outrage Tour. He told any media member with a microphone and a comb-over that he was outraged at the outrageousness of the most outragy story in the history of outrage-e-ocity. Roethlisberger was pissed.
"I'd retire before I'd accept a trade," Roethlisberger said (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook). "I mean, it would have to be something really, really unbelievable for me to even consider it. I have talked to my wife about that. I don't want to be anywhere else. This is where we want to be."
He even spoke to his wife. Wow.
More report and more Big Ben outrage followed.
Roethlisberger's outrage seemed a tad, well, overly dramatic. Thou QB doth protest too much? In fact, everyone seemed to be so damn outraged. The Steelers. His agent. Some hypocritical twits in the media. It was all sort of confusing to watch. It was a simple possible trade story. These happen all the time—yes, even with the Steelers.
Will Roethlisberger be traded? Who knows? Should he be traded? That would actually be a smart move by the Steelers. It comes down to a simple capitalistic notion: buy low, sell high.
We need to first deal with this notion that somehow Roethlisberger is untouchable or that it's so scurrilous that the suggester will burst into flames. Joe Montana was traded. John Unitas finished his career in San Diego. Peyton Manning was booted out of Indianapolis. Brett Favre finished a Minnesota Viking. And that's just the quarterbacks. Great players get traded, cut, salary reduced, benched and disrespected all the time.
What makes Roethlisberger so special that it can't happen to him?
There's something else. Trading him wouldn't be a bad idea.
Roethlisberger has long been one of my favorite quarterbacks to watch. He has, more times than many, carried the franchise on his giant shoulders. He's been as physically great and dominating as many pass throwers of his generation.
His bold, escapism style of play, however, has taken its toll. Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer, but he is clearly breaking down. He just isn't the same quarterback he once was. He isn't as strong or mobile or accurate. He's not statistically mediocre, he's practically so.
Roethlisberger is 31, but he's aged in dog years. Because of the fact he's been one of the hardest-hit quarterbacks in recent NFL history, his body is more like 35 or older. We've made a big deal how Mike Vick has only once completed an entire NFL season, but so has Roethlisberger.
Another reason to consider trading Roethlisberger is the team around him. What idiots like me got wrong about the Steelers in picking them to win a Super Bowl was the thought that there was one last run in this group of players. Instead, we now realize this Pittsburgh franchise is devoid of talent.
The offensive line is bad, the running backs stink, the receivers are average and the defense isn't great. This is why Pittsburgh has such a horrible record.
The Steelers are in a rebuilding mode. Not only that, they are at the beginning of a rebuilding mode. They need draft picks. Roethlisberger could give them some extras.
Trading Roethlisberger seems like blasphemy.
But it might be smart.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. His Ten-Point Stance column appears on Wednesdays. All stats and historical info via the NFL, unless otherwise noted.