It just wouldn’t be the NFL season without a raging firestorm of controversy. And in a year where we’ve had labor strife, trade demands, girls getting harassed left and right and more player penis pictures than you’d find in Tila Tequila’s BlackBerry, it’s kind of ironic that what’s set the world ablaze are a few old school hits.
Because over the last few days, we’ve seen more chaos caused by heads cracking together than you’ll find in an entire "Three Stooges" boxed set.
Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather laid out Baltimore’s Todd Heap with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit Sunday that, my Pats partisanship aside, is as indefensible as Heap was on the play. The ball had already flown over the tight end’s hands, when Meriweather launched himself and laid a hit into Heap’s skull bucket so vicious that it sent his mouthpiece flying. And it was a pleasant surprise that his lower jaw wasn’t still inside. The fact that the hit cost Meriweather $50,000, and not the Pats the game — or Heap his ability to walk — is something we should all be thankful for.
The same scene was repeated by Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson, who was also fined $50K for laying out Philly’s Desean Jackson, and by James Harrison of Pittsburgh, who got whacked 75 large for a hit on Cleveland’s Mohamed Massaquoi. So in the last few days we’ve seen more hits and more money change hands than during the Corleone family christening.
And for its part, the NFL is wrestling with the same question they’ve grappled with since the leather helmet days: How much hitting is too much? And reasonable people on all sides of the issue are calmly and rationally weighing in to try and come up with a resolution that will satisfy all.
Just kidding. In less than 72 hours the whole situation has descended into madness and hyperbole. No sooner did the league announce they were tightening up the rules on what’s allowable than Giants’ safety Antrel Rolle called them “absolutely ridiculous.” Meriweather vowed he won’t change the way he plays. (Memo for Brandon: To paraphrase “Fortune” from “Rudy,” “Coach know that? Well, you best tell him.”) Trent Dilfer, a former QB/tackling dummy whose career was cut short by concussions, is against doing anything, saying “The league is trying to legislate hitting out of the game.”
I don’t know if it’s the time of year or what. Maybe in an election cycle we’re just used to arguing hysterically over everything, but the whole conversation has rapidly deteriorated into one of those campaign issues where you can’t win the debate. You’re either a heartless, blood-thirsty maniac hell bent on watching carnage on the field or you want to take the hitting out of the game, put the players in skirts and turn it into the WNFL. Because of course there can be no middle ground.
Well, leave it to Rodney Harrison, of all people, to be the voice of reason. Rodney is as articulate and thoughtful broadcasting as he was a certified badass while playing. And he’s all for easing back on the vicious stuff. “I’m so happy I’m not playing anymore,” he said. “If I’m cringing from some of these hits, what does that tell you? ... I just want those guys to be protected.”
I don’t know. Call me a wuss, but I think that sounds pretty reasonable. But again, you can’t say that without someone saying you’re trying to take the hitting out of football. Search any football fan message board on the topic and the most commonly used phrase you’ll come across is, “The wussification of America continues.”
It’s the oldest rhetorical argument in the world is reductio ad absurdum. It’s not a Harry Potter curse (I don’t think); it means to reduce an argument to its illogical conclusion. You’d prefer not to see receivers splayed out on the field like CSI is about to draw a chalk outline around them? Then you’re a wuss who wants to put flags on players and destroy America. But that’s ridiculous. All my flag football needs are already being met by the Lingerie League in ways the NFL (or the Victoria’s Secret catalogue) never could, thankyouverymuch.
Like every other red-blooded, God-fearin’, WalMart shoppin’ American, I love the hitting in football. I get that being tough is a crucial part of the game. A guy who can take a vicious hit and stay in the game is more valuable than one who can’t. I get that that’s what God had in mind when he and Walter Camp invented the game. So spare me all the grumpy old fart talk about how back in the day men were men and no one needed to make rule outlawing homicide on the field.
Because like I said, they’ve literally been trying to outlaw the mayhem since the spheroid was first made prolate. Teddy Roosevelt was all man and a huge football fan. But when he was president in 1905, 18 college players died. By 1909 the number was up to 33, and TDR was seriously considering outlawing the game altogether. It was only through rule changes that football was saved, thus sparing future generations of men from Fall weekends spent apple-picking, yard work and trying to decide who to drop/add in their Fantasy Equestrian Show Jumping League.
There comes moments in any kind of conflict (and at its core, a football game is an organized form of conflict) when weapons and technology have evolved faster than the tactics. In the Revolutionary War, soldiers were firing musket balls, which were ridiculously inaccurate and took forever to reload, so officers marched their troops into the line of fire and told them to duke it out hand to hand. By the Civil War, the Minie ball was invented which were far more accurate and made the guns way more advanced. But the tactics weren’t. And it took years of fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties before it occurred to anyone to stand farther back and maybe duck behind a stone wall instead.
And that’s where we stand right now with the NFL. The weapons have outgrown the tactics. And in this case, the weaponry I’m talking about is the players. Better training methods (cough steroids cough) and nutrition (clears throat HGH) have made these guys too big and too fast to allow them to play the same way they did a generation ago. Dick Butkus has possibly the greatest highlight film of any player I’ve ever seen. He looked like a grown man let loose in a Pop Warner game. And Butkus was 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. Or roughly the size of Patriots’ long snapper Jake Ingram. When Chuck Bednarik famously knocked Frank Gifford out of commission in one of the most famous hits in NFL history, he was 6-foot-3, 233 pounds. Pats’ rookie punter Zoltan Mesko is 6-foot-5, 231 pounds. And taking nothing away from Bednarik, but we’ve all watched Kathie Lee (5-foot-2, 105 pounds) whip Frank for years.
The point … and I do have a point … is that the NFL is doing the right thing cracking down on the hits like the one Meriweather dished out. The players are evolving, and the game needs to evolve. Even the coverage has evolved. If you haven’t noticed, even ESPN has replaced the award winning “Jacked UP!” segment, where Tom Jackson and Keyshawn Johnson would high-5 each other over the most violent and dangerous hits of the week, with the “C’mon, MAN!” segment, which is far more cerebral and sensitive.
I’m as devout a pro football fan as I know, and there is no part of me that believes I need to see more carnage, more injury timeouts, more guys being put into neck braces and those big padded head stablizers while the whole stadium looks on, silently searching for signs of movement. Nor do I especially enjoy watching a team take the field in December with a roster of guys who were on the practice squad months earlier.
Again, for the last time, that doesn’t mean I want the hitting taken out of the game. But if they can eliminate the reckless, stupid nonsense like we saw Sunday out of Brandon Meriweather? I can live with that.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @jerrythornton1.