MMQB Mailbag: Week 6 may have changed how defense gets played

Publish date:

"I thought we were looking at a Darryl Stingley case all over again,'' said Anderson, the NFL's vice president of operations.

We may look back at last weekend as a seminal one in how defense is played in the NFL. That might be an exaggeration, but this is very high on the NFL's fix-it agenda, and don't underestimate what the league will do to protect its image when it feels it's in crisis mode. And for a league with its antennae up about head injuries, concussions and post-career care of injured players, last weekend may just have been the kind of perfect storm that will change the way defensive players approach big hits.

The events of the weekend, including the possible paralysis of a Rutgers football player and the strong negative reaction by former big-hitter Rodney Harrison on NBC Sunday night to a series of mega-hits in the Week 6 games, left Anderson feeling "profoundly disturbed.'' And on Tuesday the league announced it will be more vigilant about ejecting and suspending players who make flagrant hits. The league's not-on-my-watch aim is to avoid a case like the one resulting in the paralysis of former New England receiver Stingley in a 1976 game against Oakland, when he was drilled over the middle by Raider safety Jack Tatum.

SI VAULT: It has to be a bad dream (08.29.83)

In fact, I would be surprised if the first piece of discipline doesn't come this week in the form of a suspension of New England safety Brandon Meriweather for his helmet-on-helmet hit on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap.

(Editor's note, 5:35 p.m., Tuesday: NFL fined, but did not suspend three players for dangerous hits.)

"Very frankly,'' said Anderson, "a lot of folks would put that hit in the cheap-shot category. I thought it was flagrant and unnecessary ... After listening to the impactful words of Rodney Harrison that fines really are not a deterrent, I think we have to get across to the players that you may be facing a suspension for the kinds of hits we're seeing.''

On Saturday, a Rutgers linebacker, Eric LeGrand, was left without feeling in his extremities on a violent tackle of an Army player; the next day, on the same field, Detroit linebacker Zak Follett was immobilized on the field with a spinal-cord injury. Follett is OK, LeGrand may not be. And on other fields Sunday, violent hits were the order of the day -- Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson kayoed Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson on a vicious tackle, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison had helmet-to-helmet shots on Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, and New England's Meriweather went for the head of Baltimore's Heap.

POLL: Share your thoughts on helmet-to-helmet hits

"We've got to protect players from themselves,'' Anderson said, "and we're going to move aggressively to do so. On Sunday, I felt profoundly disturbed. We've got to hold our players to a higher accountability and get them to understand that they may be facing a suspension, and not only a fine, for some of these hits we're seeing.''

Of the four big hits Sunday -- and there were more in other games that haven't gotten the white-hot spotlight, such as one on St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford -- the Harrison hit on Massaquoi, a defenseless receiver in the classic sense of the NFL word, drew the ire of the league too. The hit should have been flagged for Harrison whacking a defenseless receiver in the helmet, the kind of hit that was a point of emphasis this offseason for the league's 17 officiating crews. But it got no flag.

"We missed a call,'' Anderson said. "That call should have been made.''

Officiating crews, Anderson said, would have reinforced to them this week the fact that players who make egregious helmet-to-helmet hits would be subject not just to penalties and fines, but also to ejection from the game. In the three seasons since the league put that onus on officials that they could eject players for over-the-top hits in games, no player has been ejected for such a violation. There's a good chance that will change now.

JIM TROTTER: NFL has no choice but to protect defenseless players

One more interesting point raised by's Mike Florio: Why not have the replay official empowered to buzz down from the booth to the referee if he sees an egregious physical call that the officiating crew missed? Or to correct a call that obviously was wrong in that regard? Such a case happened in the Jets-Broncos game Sunday, when New York safety Jim Leonhard was called for a personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the Broncos' Brandon Lloyd. Replays showed Leonard never hit Lloyd in the head.

This morning, on Sirius NFL Radio, I asked Denver coach Josh McDaniels about the play, about replay being used as an aid to help officials on plays that move so fast. "The play happened right near our bench,'' said McDaniels. "[Leonhard] stood right up and said, 'Coach, I didn't hit him in the head.' Jim Leonhard should never have been called for a foul ... We've got to make sure it's done the proper way, and if that means involving the replay official, I'm OK with that ... I guess what I'm saying is if they give the officials on the field the latitude to eject a player, and he really didn't do anything illegal, we better make sure we've taken a look at both sides of it.'' And if that includes replay as a tool to help, so be in.

Expect the league to consider all modes now to try to get a better handle on the issue. It's white-hot at 280 Park Avenue at league offices.

Your e-mails, first on various topics, then on the Deion "I Got Robbed When NFL Films Rated Me The 34th-Best Player Of All-Time'' Sanders topic:

• I WAS NEGLIGENT IN NOT PRAISING MCCOY. "Somewhat surprised that you did not mention Colt McCoy's solid performance against the Steelers, particularly because you noted that Gil Brandt recommended him to Mike Holmgren in one of your columns from the draft period. Although it was only one game, how do you think McCoy looked?''--Matt, Secaucus, N.J.

Colt McCoy, I believe, was a revelation Sunday in Pittsburgh. I should have spent some words Monday praising him. What impressed me most was his poise on one of the toughest fields in the NFL, against one of the toughest defenses he'll ever face. To go 23 of 33 while being under constant attack is a tribute to all the preparation he's had for this moment over the years, particularly at Texas.

I watched a lot of this game, and what was impressive was how he never flinched in the face of the five sacks or the seven or eight other significant pressures. I wouldn't be surprised to see McCoy start not only against New Orleans this week at the Superdome, but also after the bye, when the Patriots and Jets, in succession, travel to Cleveland. Talk about a tough road to start a career. But yes, I'm high on what I saw in McCoy.

• PLAY THE GAME LIKE RUGBY. "In the violent game of rugby, players are not allowed to hit an opponent above the shoulders during a tackle. The price for violating this rule: ejection and the violator's team plays one man down. The NFL would be significantly less dangerous if it adopted this rule and consequence.''--Dave P., Albany, N.Y.

I doubt this will ever come to be, but it is really an interesting concept, particularly playing one man down the way it's done in some other sports. I know how big a factor it is on the World Cup stage.

• I LIKE IT. "Regarding the change of pass interference to a 15-yard penalty: Couldn't the NFL create a new penalty to prevent defensive backs from intentionally tackling wide receivers? Make the inadvertent penalties (which would probably be in the vast majority) a 15-yard penalty and make an 'intentional' interference a spot foul?''--Ryan S., Indianapolis

From your lips to the Competition Committee's ears. It's a great thought.

• OK. I SEE. "I have to disagree with taking Charlie Casserly to task for reporting on the Brett Favre news 20 hours after it happened. I think that readers really don't care about that sort of thing and it's a little too "inside baseball" on the part of the media. It wasn't even a full 24 hours later when he reported on it, and you are criticizing him for doing so too late after the initial report? The media goes too fast in all aspects of reporting and doesn't give proper attention to stories that deserve it, which contributes to our ADHD nation and the inability of people to think about a subject in depth. Criticizing someone for reporting on an event only 20 hours after the first report doesn't help this problem at all.''--Dave B., San Francisco

Charley and I talked Monday, and there are no hard feelings about this. And Dave, I see your point. I won't harp on this, but in my business, if I report something on national TV and 20 hours later someone else reports the same thing on another national TV outlet without attributing the story properly, that's something I have a problem with.

Now your points about the Deion situation. It's your forum, so I'm just going to print your thoughts here.

• DEION IS RANKED TOO HIGH. "If anything, Deion Sanders is ranked too high on that list. He was the prototypical cover corner and one of the best return men ever, but he was flawed as a cornerback and didn't tackle well until later in his career. Top-50 NFL players don't have major flaws. The Canton (Ohio) Repository did a good job last year ranking its top 50 Hall of Famers of all-time, and while Deion would not have been eligible for that list (neither would Jerry Rice and some others), I would have a hard time putting Deion in the top 40.''--Joe F., Canton, Ohio

• HE AGREES. "I tend to agree more with you. Compared to other DBs, the only other one higher than him is Rod Woodson. How much higher? We're not sure, but there is clearly an argument for Woodson to be ranked higher than Sanders due to his ability to play multiple positions and he tackled a lot better - points you already mentioned. As compared to the other defensive players, they are all linemen and linebackers - players who are generally more involved on every single play. Similarly to a relief pitcher in baseball (who is generally considered less valuable than a field player) who may only impact the outcome of 45-50% of a team's games, a cornerback may only impact 35-40% of a team's defensive snaps (assuming a 50/50 run/pass split and the normal distribution of passes). In contrast, the defensive line has an impact on every play. For that reason, I have no problem rating the all-time best linemen ahead of Sanders. As for the linebackers, the few who are ahead of Sanders had to be game-planned for every bit as much as Sanders and they probably had an impact on 65-90% of the defensive snaps any given day. I like Deion's energy and his confidence, but he has to consider his position's impact on the game as a whole to see the big picture.''--Adam S., of Deefield, Ill.

• HE AGREES TOO. " 'Did Deion get jobbed?' Please. Before there ever was a Prime Time, Darrell Green was doing what Deion would later come to be famous for. Sorry to make this sound like a Jimmy Johnson product pitch, but Green did it faster, harder and longer too.''--Stewart, Phoenix

• DEION IS A COOL DUDE, AND WE HAVE HIM ALL WRONG. "Deion Sanders has mellowed like you said Rodney Harrison has. I never really cared for "PrimeTime" but the more I watch him on NFL network the more I like him. His pouring talcum or baby powder in his hand then fake slapping Steve Mariucci as one of the voters that placed him 34th was both funny and endearing. It showed he has finally accepted he's not playing anymore and values his legacy in the NFL and has a GREAT sense of humor while still being contemporary enough to give a view that is legit.''--Jon W., of Hernando, Miss.