Collier: NFL owners take some insanity out of the game
With NFL commissioner Roger Goodell looking on, St. Louis Rams head coach and co-chairman of the NFL competition committee Jeff Fisher gestures while explaining a new rule passed by the owners that bars ballcarriers from using the crown of their helmets to make forcible contact with a defender in the open field.
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No one has ever so much as estimated the length or breadth or depth of the convulsive transition underway in the NFL, so maybe it's not surprising that some of the people it will affect are having such profound difficulty with it.
No one said it would be easy changing the game from 60 minutes of essentially unrepressed violence into something the players can live with, and I mean literally.
Mike Webster is dead.
Terry Long is dead.
Justin Strzelczyk is dead.
Junior Seau is dead.
Dave Duerson is dead.
That's an abridged list.
Javon Belcher is dead, and so is his girlfriend, whom he shot nine times.
There's an unnecessarily deep-grain brutality to football at this level that's leaving people unable to function mentally as well as physically, and they're taking collateral damage.
This didn't happen overnight. It won't recede overnight.
By taking the rightful step that penalizes "forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top crown of the helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside of the tackle box," the league's owners Wednesday accelerated the transition back toward sanity.
From now on, a running back cannot lower his head to ram a tackler in the open field, and a defender cannot do the same to a ball carrier, at least without drawing a penalty.
The league shouldn't do this unilaterally, but the transition will be markedly smoother when players graduate from a mentality that's been wired into their DNA by coaches and executives and other players for decades.
In the opening pages of "The Blind Side," a book about Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher and, more broadly, about the game's evolution, author Michael Lewis effectively illuminates the absolutely fearsome nature of the anatomical politics between the sidelines.
"A sack is when you run up behind somebody who's not watching, he can't see you, and you really put your helmet into him," is the quote he presents from New York Giants Lawrence Taylor. "I don't like to just wrap the quarterback. I really try to make him see seven fingers when they hold up three, or, if I can, I'll bring my arm up over my head and try to axe the [quarterback]. So long as the guy is holding the ball, I intend to hurt him. If I hit the guy right, I'll hit a nerve and he'll feel electrocuted. He'll feel for a few seconds like he's not on a football field."
These quotes are going on 30 years old. Don't tell me the game is more civilized today. The L.T. mentality has metastasized. Taylor wasn't reviled for his attitude. He was revered. The next generation of defenders couldn't wait to play that way. Eventually, meaning today, there are too many players who are as obsessed with hurting people as they are with winning.
Way too often, coaches love them for it.
Google the New Orleans Saints if you have no frame of reference.
Here's something else about Taylor that frames the issue even better. It's from an unnamed Washington Redskins lineman of that same era.
"No human being should be 6-4, 245, and run a 4.5 40."
Not for safety's sake anyway.
Taylor was actually 6-3 and about 237, but he was the quickest phenomenon ever seen at the outside linebacker position. He was the dangerous human being every coach wanted. Last month, there were, by my count, at least eight pass rushing humans at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis who were bigger than Taylor and nearly as fast. Ausar Wright of Virginia measured 6-3, 240, and ran a 4.56. Dion Jordan of Oregon came in at 6-6, 248, and ran 4.6. Some running backs, many nearly as big, are, of course, even faster.
Having humans like these run into each other headfirst is the kind of thing that's going to get somebody hurt, then somebody sued, both of which are being done with gusto. The NFL is in no position, legally, and perhaps in no position even morally, where it could have voted down this kind of safety measure in this era.
There are all manner of current and former running backs staging all manner of conniptions over the new rule, predictable enough. That's the thing about transition. It's hard.
"It's totally against what people are teaching players," Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith told Bleacher Report. "And the way I was always taught, even from a young age, you run behind your shoulder pads. And if I'm running behind my shoulder pads, that means I'm running with a forward lean. If I'm running with a forward lean, that means my head is the heaviest thing on my body at the time it's leaning forward. And at the end of the day, my head is gonna be the first thing to make contact. That's the part that I think is totally missing."
But the fact is, for too many guys, a couple of years after they're done playing, their mind is totally missing as well. So coach it differently. It's not that drastic of an adjustment.
"One of few times when you heard people clap," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher was saying on the NFL Network about the 31-1 vote for this rule change among owners. "It's a huge victory for the NFL. It's a great step to provide more information to little guys putting a helmet on for the first time.
"It brings the shoulder back [into the game]. We've lost the shoulder. It's not gonna be over-officiated. You can deliver a blow with the shoulder, with the face, with the hairline [of the helmet]. As long as he doesn't load up and strike with the top of the helmet. We're just protecting the players against themselves."
After failing to do that sufficiently for most of the past century, you would think the league could get some appreciation for it, at least among the humans for whom it's not already too late.
First Published March 21, 2013 12:00 am