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,
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,
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.''