NBC's Football Night in America should have been renamed "Confessions of a Serial Hitter" last Sunday. It was must-see TV when enforcer-turned-analyst Rodney Harrison disclosed that he used to set aside $50,000 before the start of each season to pay fines for big hits. In his mind, it was the cost of doing business; receivers had to know there was a price to be paid for trespassing.
When the league couldn't get Harrison's attention with fines, it took the next step and suspended him for a game. Suddenly, his eyes and ears were open. To keep from hurting his team, he had to alter his game. So, he lowered his strike zone and reprogrammed his mind.
An hour before Harrison came clean in a New York studio, Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson told a similar story, by phone, from his suburban Phoenix home. For years, the league had tried to get him to tone down his game, but repeated fines for dangerous hits and tackles did no good. Even when Wilson was warned in 2008 that another infraction could result in a suspension and $50,000 fine, he stood defiant -- shoulders back, chest out, chin up.
Then he was flagged for unnecessary roughness for a hit on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in the 2009 season opener. Suddenly, the fear of suspension wasn't a distant light on the horizon -- it was a flashlight in his eyes, and it scared him straight.
"The thing is, I don't want my teammates to be without me," said Wilson, who was fined $10,000 but not suspended. "But it's really hard because you only have that split-second to determine what to do. It's crazy. I try my best to use clear judgment and make clear decisions, but a lot of those collisions are unavoidable. You're either going to let them catch it and take a step to see what's going on, or there's going to be a collision."
The impact of losing games in addition to money for flagrant hits on defenseless receivers is a hot topic because the NFL announced Monday that it's considering immediate suspensions for players who deliver such shots. There were at least six incidents Sunday of helmet-to-helmet contact involving unsuspecting receivers or quarterbacks, including a violent, whiplash-producing crash between Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson.
(Editor's note, 5:35 p.m., Tuesday: NFL fined, but did not suspend three players for dangerous hits.)
Could Robinson, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness, have pulled off or gone lower? Perhaps. Truth is, it looked as if he was trying to twist his upper body and lead with his right shoulder. However, the force of the collision caused his head to hit Jackson's.
With the pair lying on the grass, players took a knee around them and said a prayer (Jackson and Robinson sustained concussions and did not return). The hit was far from dirty, but the violence of it speaks to why the league is acting so swiftly. It has to err on the side of caution, because failing to do so would be irresponsible and potentially deadly.
The players have become too big and fast, the collisions too violent. Linebackers are the size of defensive linemen from two decades ago, and safeties are as large as linebackers used to be. San Francisco defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was a 6-foot-1, 243-pound reserve linebacker and special teams standout during his 12-year NFL career. However, since retiring after the 1999 season, he has seen the game and its players change dramatically.
"That's why I agree with the rule about the defenseless player," Manusky said this summer. "Things are different. When I was playing there was nobody running a 4.3 at safety. Are you crazy? Now all of a sudden you're going to get a 4.3 safety that weighs 220 pounds, and he's going to hit a tight end across the head? That's going to shorten or end your career. Those rules are in effect because it's a faster game now. Back in the day, you had a few 300-pound linemen rolling around, you had a safety that ran a 4.5, 4.6 or 4.7 that weighed 200 pounds; they hit you and you were fine. Now I look at the field and I say, 'Holy sh**.'"
The league has no choice but to step in when players ignore the inherent dangers -- and when players brazenly thumb their nose at the rules. Consider New England safety Brandon Meriweather and Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, who both crossed the line last Sunday.
Meriweather took a cheap shot at defenseless tight end Todd Heap, launching and hitting him so hard that Heap's mouthpiece flew downfield as if he had been shot from a cannon. Meriweather was flagged for unnecessary roughness and also benched briefly by coach Bill Belichick.
Harrison, the league's Defensive Player of the Year during Pittsburgh's 2008 Super Bowl season, knocked Browns ball-carrier Josh Cribbs from the game with a helmet-first hit, then sent unsuspecting wideout Mohamed Massaquoi to the sideline for good seven minutes later with a powerful blow. Harrison lined up Massaquoi on a crossing route, crouched and uncoiled into him, bringing through both forearms for momentum.
Harrison, who did not receive a penalty on the play, was unrepentant afterward. He told reporters that he looks to hurt players, although he was quick to point out he never tries to injure someone. There is a major difference between the two. Still there's no question it was an overly violent blow, one that's likely to bring him another fine. But do fines really matter?
Harrison, the NBC analyst who played 15 seasons as a safety with the Chargers and Patriots, received more than $200,000 in fines through the early 2000s but still refused to change his hard-hitting style. It wasn't until the league suspended him for a game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jerry Rice that he reprogrammed his ways. Look for more players to face the same situation the rest of the year.
The league's increased vigilance is nothing new. It has gone to great lengths to protect defenseless receivers. For instance, in 2007 it notified teams that officials would begin ejecting players for flagrant helmet-to-helmet hits, and in each of the past two offseasons it has adopted new rules or emphasized existing ones in hopes of eliminating head shots.
Still, some players and executives worry that officials could go too far the other way.
Wilson, for one, said he believes "a lot of the calls are made based on the violence of the hit and not necessarily whether it was illegal or not."
An executive whose team was involved in a helmet-to-helmet incident on Sunday said the same thing.
"It's paramount to distinguish between a cheap shot and an aggressive play on the football," he said. "I am all for the protecting of players and understand it as it pertains to the rules. But it waters down the validity of the rule if it's just based on the violence of the contact. I just think it's very, very important to differentiate between being illegal and violence of the hit.
"The other thing is, there is a train of thought that when a player hesitates, he makes himself more prone to injuries in general. There is a big difference between sacking a quarterback and a split-second, bang-bang play in the secondary. There are certain times where, if you hesitate, you're more susceptible to injury."
While true, the reality is that something has to be done. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson, a former heat-seeking missile of a linebacker, admitted Monday that his attitude as a player was to do as much damage to an opponent as possible. He lived for the "kill" shot. But he says the game and its players have changed. During Monday's pregame show, he spoke about having to do stories on players who were paralyzed from hits in games. The sincerity and concern in his voice was as attention-grabbing as one of his hits.
Anyone who thinks the NFL is overreacting on this issue need only watch a replay of Jackson's commentary. Chilling doesn't do it justice.