It’s not because defenders in the NFL are bloodthirsty animals that are out to injure every receiver that comes near them. (OK, maybe some of them are.) Rather, the vicious helmet-to-helmet hits that have now become the focal point of every NFL weekend are a product of the current rules defenders must play by.
When the Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison threatened to retire in mid-October, a day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a memo emphasizing harsh penalties to those who hit opponents in the head, I laughed at Harrison’s gesture. “You’re going to give up millions of dollars because you can’t play defense without helmet-to-helmet hits? What a baby. Maybe you should retire,” I screamed at the TV upon hearing this news. (It was Harrison’s Oct. 17 concussion causing hit on the Browns’ Mohamed Massaquoi that sparked harsher enforcement of the rules.)
I know that the NFL has turned into a quarterback/receiver league and that being a good defender is getting harder and harder, but who cries like a baby and says he is going to retire because the NFL doesn’t want a hard hitting player anymore? James Harrison, I guess.
Of course, Harrison didn’t retire and the NFL’s spotlight remained focused on his play. So far, Harrison has been fined $100,000 for three separate hits this year and after a roughing-the-passer penalty last weekend against Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, he may face even more.
“I didn't expect to get a flag,” Harrison told The New York Times after last weekend’s game. “I guess the referees are getting to the point where they’re afraid not to make a call if it’s borderline. That’s textbook. It doesn’t get any better than that: Hit, wrap and I made sure to put my hands out so I didn’t land on him, put my body weight on him or anything, but they still made the call.”
While Harrison does have a reputation as being somewhat dirty, I have to agree with his statement. Since the helmet-to-helmet discussion has taken over this season, I have seen more penalty flags thrown at defenders for making good, hard contact – hits that shouldn’t be illegal and often times aren’t illegal. The referees are calling penalties on every hard hit. I know that players need to be protected and concussions are a serious threat to their health, but at what point will it not be football anymore? (Maybe it just morphs to flag football?) It was in that penalty-ridden Oakland/Steelers game that I saw a good clean tackle, no helmet-to-helmet hit at all, and the defender got flagged for it. It is so frustrating to watch. Every weekend, whether it’s in college or NFL, I see penalties called on a lot of legal, good tackles, yet I still see a lot of head-to-head hits that are injuring players. The NFL’s focus on fining players for these hits is simply not working and it’s detrimental to the game.
Here’s what can be done to help the problem: Modify the rules to let defenders defend. Right now, defensive backs and linebackers cannot touch a receiver after five yards and, in the NFL, they face a terrible penalty of pass interference at the spot of the foul if they brush a receiver the wrong way. So what do defenders do? Leave the receiver alone until he catches the ball, then blast him as hard as they can in hopes he won’t make the catch. A helmet-to-helmet hit usually works pretty well to get a receiver to drop the ball. The current rules create separation between the receiver and defender that often end in a violent hit.
If the NFL were to allow defenders to jam receivers for 10 or 15 yards, that separation between the two will not be created and will likely end with a simple open field tackle instead of a full-on blast to the helmet. The NFL might also consider making pass interference a 15-yard penalty. Again, this will keep the defender closer to the receiver and will allow for more man-to-man play, rather than hitting the receiver after the ball arrives.
Now I understand that safeties and other defenders will still be able to come across the field and blast a receiver. The fines should still take care of that sort of thing. But these few rule changes would give the defender an opportunity to play defense against the receiver. Maybe Harrison will stop crying and will have to play defense. Right now, the only way to effectively defend a receiver is to blast him into the next century when the ball arrives. This is the NFL’s fault. Not the defenders. (I understand receivers aren’t the only ones sustaining violent hits but, really, they are the worst ones.)
Those rule changes would also bring back the need for a good running game. I am tired of quarterbacks playing eyes-closed 500 with desperate 50-yard bombs to the end zone in hopes of getting a pass interference penalty (yes, you, Mark Sanchez).
If the NFL wants to protect its players, maybe now is the time to allow a true pass defense.