Helmet-to-Helmet Punishment: The NFL Has Opened a Pandora's Box

Randolph CharlotinAnalyst IIOctober 20, 2010

Hard hit? Absolutely. But is it illegal?
Hard hit? Absolutely. But is it illegal?Al Bello/Getty Images

What’s surprising about this helmet-to-helmet issue isn’t the action taken by the NFL, but that the rule already was in existence for several years but was never enforced. The league gave referees the authority to eject players if they delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit in a game, but the referees never used that power. If the refs tossed a player or two out of a game, maybe this wouldn’t be an issue.

This isn’t an overreaction by the league, but a delayed reaction. With the rule already in place, it was up to the NFL to encourage officials to use their full authority and eject players when deemed necessary.

It’s disappointing the issue came to a head under these circumstances. Now that the NFL has the motivation to take action, they need to get the crime and punishment right. Good luck with that.

How is the league going to discourage helmet-to-helmet hits when they take place on every play? It happens along the line at the snap of the ball and when the offensive lineman leads on blocks. And if special teams was watched with equal attention as offense and defense, we’re bound to see domes collide every kickoff and punt coverage.

Running backs sometimes lead with their heads when going through the hole or when they lower a shoulder to go through a tackler. Would it be a defender’s fault when the ball carrier initiates the contact? How about when the receiver drops his hips to change direction with a defender bearing down? With almost no time to react, how does a defender avoid drilling a helmet moved into their bulls-eye?

Illegal helmet-to-helmet hits isn’t black and white. It isn’t as simple as changing the receiver out of bounds rule or the facemask rule. People don’t agree on the four scrutinized hits from Sunday. So how will the league decide which hits are legal and which ones cross the line?

The only consensus is New England safety Brandon Merriweather’s hit on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap. The jarring hit where the only contact was two helmets between two airborne players is an example of an illegal hit because Merriweather left his feet to hit Heap.

Starting with that as the baseline for a definition of an illegal hit, then Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison crossed the line with his hit on Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.

But what makes Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson’s hit on Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson bad when Robinson didn’t launch himself and led with his shoulder?

The NFL interested in the safety of both offensive and defensive players. Robinson simultaneously gave himself a concussion when he gave Jackson a concussion. The NFL doesn’t want to lose another player like they lost Buffalo tight end Kevin Everett just three years ago.

On Tuesday, the NFL handed out fines totaling $175,000 to three players for hits deemed illegal or unofficially crossed the line. The league has to take the next step and clearly define what helmet hits are unacceptable for the next time they punish a player.

Randolph Charlotin writes a New England Patriots blog at www.randolphc.com.