NFL Plans to Suspend Players For Big Hits: Is The League Going Too Far?

Charles HoweCorrespondent IOctober 19, 2010

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 17:  James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers encourages the fans to make noise while playing the Cleveland Browns on October 17, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 28-10.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The NFL's vice president of football operations, Ray Anderson, reacted to several hits involving helmet-to-helmet contact this past weekend by releasing a statement on Monday saying, "You have to consider [suspensions] in flagrant-foul cases and egregious cases. Suspensions are not off the table, even for first-time offenders."

The hits in question were Atlanta Falcons' cornerback Dunta Robinson's hit on Philadelphia Eagles' receiver DeSean Jackson, New England Patriots' safety Brandon Meriweather's hit on Baltimore Ravens' tight end Todd Heap, and Pittsburgh Steelers' linebacker James Harrison's hits on Cleveland Browns' receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi.

The league has already said via Greg Aiello that James Harrison's hit on Joshua Cribbs was legal, "The first hit [on Joshua Cribbs] was legal. The second [hit on Mohamed Massaquoi] will be reviewed."

What separates Harrison's hit on Cribbs from the other three hits is that Joshua Cribbs was executing a rushing play out of the wildcat formation. The NFL enacted rule changes during the offseason that place special emphasis on protecting quarterbacks in the process of throwing and defenseless receivers against hits involving helmet-to-helmet contact, but it's business as usual for players rushing the football.

In all cases, defenders are not allowed to spear a ball carrier with their helmets. However, helmet-to-helmet contact is not as strictly monitored on ball carriers that are in a position to defend themselves such as running backs, or receivers who have already completed a reception and are trying to gain extra yards, because the NFL recognizes that ball carriers often change pad levels while bracing for a tackle by getting lower to the ground.

In these cases, a defender may make helmet-to-helmet contact incidentally. The NFL wants to curtail head-hunting, or in other words, players that are purposely and maliciously trying to hit a ball carrier in the head, particularly while a quarterback is throwing or a receiver is in the process of making a catch. But not all helmet-to-helmet contact falls in this category.

In fact, helmet-to-helmet contact is a misnomer. The recent 2010 rule changes prohibit a player from using "any part of his helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily." They also provide for "special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures." 

Defenders are not allowed to forcibly hit "the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him."

Defenders are also prohibited from "lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the “hairline” or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body."

They are further restricted from “launching(springing forward and upward) into a defenseless player, or otherwise striking him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet or facemask to forcibly strike the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face—even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the defenseless player’s neck."

The only one of the remaining three hits that was blatantly in violation of the new rules was Brandon Meriweather's hit on Todd Heap. Meriweather left his feet and launched himself directly at Heap's head.

The problem is that the NFL, in a knee-jerk reaction to the media's coverage of the effects of concussions on NFL players, hurried together rule changes that are worded very ambiguously.

What exactly is a "defenseless" player? When does a defenseless player morph from being defenseless back to being just like any other ball carrier? And what exactly constitutes a violent or unnecessary hit?

Dunta Robinson almost certainly wasn't making a malicious hit on DeSean Jackson. The hit resulted in both men sustaining concussions. It is very unlikely that Robinson would willingly risk personal injury in an attempt to take a cheap shot at DeSean Jackson.

James Harrison's hit on Mohamed Massaquoi also wasn't likely intended to be a head shot. The replay clearly shows Massaquoi getting his hands on the ball and turning upfield in an attempt to gain more yards. Upon seeing Harrison closing in, Massaquoi lowers his pad level to brace himself and then falls victim to a blow to the head. How could Harrison have anticipated Massaquoi's change in pad level? The only potential problem for Harrison, Massaquoi hadn't fully completed the catch prior to Harrison leveling him.

Does the league really expect defensive players to concede a reception prior to making a hit? According to the rule changes, they do.

Both Robinson and Harrison are likely to receive fines for their hits within the next 24 hours. They may fall victim to the result of their hits. Both Massaquoi and Jackson sustained concussions. Too often fans and members of the media call for fines to be levied just because a play resulted in an injury. Meriweather's hit on Heap was far more malicious than either Harrison's or Robinson's hits were. However, Todd Heap was able to return to the game because he did not suffer a concussion.

One of the first things a football player is taught is that football is a game of leverage and that the player who gets his pads the lowest is usually going to win the battle for leverage. When two men are attempting to get as low to the ground as possible, often the meeting point between the two is in the helmet or facemask area. These type of hits are often unavoidable.

While it is a good thing that the NFL is making strides to prevent concussions, they are trying too hard to make up for lost time. Something should have been done about concussions years ago, and in an attempt at atonement, the NFL is overreacting.

Concussions are never going to be completely eliminated from the game. Concussion prevention is an integral cog in protecting players, however, the most important piece of the equation is already in place: correctly diagnosing concussions and forcing players to sit out until they are symptom free. This was the slice of the pie that was lacking from the NFL for many years. Just ask Merril Hoge about his experiences with concussions from his playing days.

This step alone could have drastically altered the lives of players like Justin Strzelczyk, Mike Webster or Terry Long. All three players' died prematurely and had brain damage as a result of chronic concussions. All three men were former Steelers' offensive linemen. Yet, very little has been done in the new rule changes to protect offensive and defensive linemen who take blows to the head on nearly every snap.

The NFL shouldn't kid itself. The only reason it has made strides to reduce concussions is because of the bad publicity surrounding the deaths of guys like Long, Webster and Strzelczyk—or even former Philadelphia Eagles' safety Andre Waters.

Andre Waters and Terry Long committed suicide. Justin Strzelczyk died in a car crash driving 90 mph into oncoming traffic in an attempt to evade capture by the police. Mike Webster died of a heart attack, but suffered from severe mental problems prior to his death.

Not only is the NFL only trying to save face with it's new "get tough" attitude, it isn't even trying to protect the players most susceptible to concussions. It's trying to prevent its marquee players from missing playing time. To the NFL it's all about the bottom line, which is placed above even the health of players. Don't be fooled by it's new facade of getting tough on violent hits.