Friday October 14th, 2011

One year ago this weekend, the NFL changed the way it disciplined players. Forever. No longer would brutal helmet-to-helmet hits get a $7,500 wrist-slap. Three big hits in Week 6 drew a combined $175,000 in fines, and new points of emphases set up a new way of hitting by angry defenders. The defenders are still angry, but there's been progress in decreasing helmet-to-helmet hits and the hits on defenseless ballcarriers.

"As we look at the one-year anniversary,'' said NFL vice president Ray Anderson on Thursday, "we can say it's a pretty happy anniversary. As we have studied it over the past year, there is no question in our minds that players have adjusted their target areas. There is no question they are aiming lower. I think we have a safer game than we had a year ago.''

The league ratcheted up fines for hits after a perfect storm of brutality. Within 24 hours at the Meadowlands, a Rutgers player, linebacker Eric LeGrand, suffered a severe spinal-cord injury in a game against Army, and a Detroit linebacker, Zack Follett, lay motionless on the turf after a big hit against the Giants. Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather nailed Baltimore tight end Todd Heap gratuitously in the head with his helmet. Steeler James Harrison and Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson collided with defenseless receivers, Robinson appearing to contact DeSean Jackson of the Eagles in the upper chest or shoulders, and Harrison nailing Cleveland wideout Mohamed Massaquoi with a forearm to the head -- as Massaquoi seemed to duck to avoid it. All the hits were take-your-breath-away jobs.

Players had been taught for the past couple of years to avoid hitting offensive players at the shoulders or above. At midseason last year, it became a league crusade. Immediately the NFL sent out a DVD with hits to avoid, a video presentation catcalled in many team-meeting rooms around the league. Some defenders said they wouldn't change the way they played. One offender who did not want to be identified, said, "If I get fined, I get fined. I look at it as a cost of doing business. If I'm thinking out there about where I should hit a guy, that's going to take away my reaction time and aggressiveness. I won't have a job.''

Others, though, have accepted it -- with regrets -- as a fact of life in a game the league's trying to make safer. "It's crazy,'' said Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, now on IR with an Achilles injury. "But they knew how to get our attention. They have. There's still so much gray area to it -- like if I aim low, and the receiver ducks down, and I hit him in the helmet, I can still get fined. I'm aiming lower, but I'm still the one in trouble. But the officials have told us to aim lower, and we know it's their way or the highway.''

Watching games this year, the one thing that has seemed to change is how defenders hit receivers on long passes, or on plays where safeties, in particular, can take a running start and light into receivers at the moment the ball comes to them. More often than not, the hits on receivers are coming below the shoulder pads. "That observation is consistent with what we've seen when we look at plays every week,'' said Anderson. "Guys are still playing tough, physical ball -- while separating players from the ball with hits to the chest and waist.''

The NFL showed owners and club officials at the league meeting in Houston this week video of several legal hits, buttressing its case that defenses have changes. In Week 1, Saints defensive back Malcolm Jenkins took a run at Greg Jennings of the Packers and, just as the ball arrived, nailed Jennings -- in the ribs. In San Diego in Week 1, Jared Allen of the Vikings had a shot to punish Antonio Gates on a short pass in the flat, but he wrapped him up and drove him to the ground in a form tackle rather than blow him up.

"We're still able to play the game,'' San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman said Thursday. "We're being -- not soft, but I guess more finesse as tacklers. We're still able to make tackles; we've just had to change our game a little bit.''

One league monitor, Chris Nowinski, president of the brain-trauma think tank Sports Legacy Institute, sees that as a change for the better. "I see more safeties hitting with the shoulder and aiming lower,'' Nowinski said. "People said players couldn't be retaught, but they have been. And the game hasn't suffered. The games are higher-scoring, but who's upset about that? Only the defensive players. If the result of this new scrutiny is more points and more excitement in the games, geez, what a win it is for everybody.''

Just don't expect everyone to be so happy about it. This is tough medicine for defensive players who, as Beason says, sometimes get punished even when aiming lower because the receivers and backs lower their heads too. But it's the way of life in the NFL's new landscape.

The "NFL Podcast with Peter King'' is chock-full of good guests this week -- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Sweetness author Jeff Pearlman and NFL writer Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The podcast on iTunes:The podcast on SI.com.

My favorite stuff is Rodgers on humility, and the lessons in that from his family. Some snippets from the podcast:

Rodgers on the humbling experience of falling deep into the first round on Draft Day 2005, and having TV cameras monitor his disappointment: "At the time it was really embarrassing ... but now I look back on it with a lot of pride about the way that I handled it, and [the way] my family and my friends around me handled that situation because I think it said a lot about our character, and I got picked by an incredible organization with a great fan base, and I think it's worked out pretty good for everybody.''

Rodgers on the moral of the story of him going to Green Bay: "Good things come to those who wait. ... I think the years I spent as a backup were invaluable for me to learn the position and to become an expert of our offense.''

Pearlman on the flak he's taking for writing a thorough Walter Payton biography: "I think people like the idea of a definitive biography until you give them a definitive biography."

Pearlman on why Payton fans should read the book: "People who say they're huge fans of Walter Payton. ... You don't know him. And if you know him, you'll love him even more [after reading the book] because you'll understand his life and you'll understand what he went through.''

Washington P Sav Rocca (number 4). The Redskins have a rather important game with Philadelphia this week -- more important for the team that used to employ Rocca, the Eagles. And for the Redskins to win, they'll have to continue to get great play out of the punter who's been the best field-position punter in football this year. Rocca has punted 21 times, put 12 of them inside the 20-, and had none flop in the end zone for a touchback. A 44.2-yard average doesn't hurt either.

1. California Dreamin'. Golden State teams are 11-4, and regardless of the outcome of the weekend (Chargers bye, 49ers at Detroit, Raiders home to Browns), San Francisco will exit the weekend in first in the NFC West and San Diego first in the AFC West. An Oakland win would put the Raiders within a half-game of the Chargers. Finally, a non-Andrew Luck reason to care about what happens with the California teams.

2. Trade rumors. The weekend will be full of them. Wouldn't surprise me, as Mike Klis has reported in Denver, to see wideout Brandon Lloyd go if Denver could get a third- or fourth-rounder. Tennessee's a logical landing spot.

3. Brandon Marshall to do some look-at-me stunt because he can't help himself. Getting kicked out of the Monday night game in the second quarter for fighting? Yeah. That's the kind of leadership you want from your highly paid vets.

4. The Falcons in a very dangerous game. The Panthers come to town, which, in the past, would have been just the cure for what ails the Falcons. (Atlanta's won the last three against Carolina at the Georgia Dome by an average of 15.3 points.) But the Panthers have a quarterback now, and wideout Steve Smith has been reborn with rookie passer Cam Newton. The embattled Falcon secondary is due to get more embattled.

5. The Impossible Dream Bowl. Rams (0-4) at Pack (5-0). Chris Myers and Tim Ryan, get your B material prepared.

6. Fly, Eagles, Fly. Philly at Washington. Rivalry game anyway. This one's got much more at stake with the Eagles being 1-4. Mike Vick's averaging two turnovers a game, but it would help if his offensive line would a) block the right people; b) give Vick enough time to make a play now and then; and c) stay intact.

7. Mark Sanchez throwing it downfield. Coach Schottenheimer, you acquired and re-signed Santonio Holmes for a very good reason. He's good. Time to build a coat of armor around Sanchez Monday night so he has some time to go to Holmes.

8. Carson Palmer to not be traded. Unless you're offering a second-round pick, don't call Mike Brown.

9. Tribute to Al. The Raiders are telling fans to get in their seats at Oakland early Sunday afternoon for an in-stadium tribute to the late Al Davis. I'll tell you what Al would love the most among all the Sunday events: A 40-0 win over Cleveland.

10. Which Romo shows up? Cowboys at Foxboro for their first game in two weeks, and all any Dallas fan wants is some consistency from Tony Romo.

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