Over and over, Chicago Bear linebacker Vinson Smith watched a
replay of his big hit on St. Louis Ram quarterback Chris Miller.
With each viewing, Smith grew angrier. The NFL had levied a
$12,000 fine on him for the blow, and as he reran the tape in
the Bears' meeting room last Saturday, he kept trying to figure
"This game was built on aggressive behavior," Smith said,
pounding his fist on his thigh. "People are always comparing
football to war. Well, in war the enemy is always fighting to
get to the center of power, the brain center, using any means
necessary. It's the same in football. The quarterback is the
center of power, and we've got to get him out of his game. If we
can't, he's going to win the war."
Smith simmered. "You can't put a cage around the quarterback and
take the intimidation factor out of the game, but that's what
the league is doing," he said.
Early in the fourth quarter of the Rams' 34-28 win over the
Bears on Sept. 24, Miller dropped back to pass, and just as he
released the ball, Smith launched himself at him, leading with
his right forearm. Miller turned and ducked, but it was too
late. As the play ended, he lay on the ground with what the
Rams later said was a slight concussion.
October 15, 1995
Referee Larry Nemmers observed the hit from a distance of no
more than 10 yards, but no flag was thrown. From both angles
shown on the videotapes, it was unclear whether Smith's forearm
or his helmet made the initial contact with Miller's head, and
Smith insists that his body, not his elbow or his helmet,
connected first. Smith suspects the hard artificial turf of St.
Louis's Busch Stadium caused Miller's injury.
But the league viewed the hit quite differently--as did Miller,
who said last Saturday, with no trace of anger at Smith, "He
left his feet, flew at me, led with his elbow and knocked me
When Smith arrived at work three days after the hit, he received
a notice informing him that he was the latest transgressor
caught by the NFL's new quarterback-protection program. The
league's director of development, Gene Washington, ruled that
the hit violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 11, adopted last
March, which states: "A defensive player must not use a face
mask or other part of his helmet against a passer who is in a
virtually defenseless posture...."
Washington reviewed film Monday of a fearsome hit by Buffalo
Bill defensive end Bruce Smith that knocked New York Jet
quarterback Boomer Esiason out of Sunday's game with a severe
concussion and determined it was legitimate. He also was still
looking into an Oct. 1 hit by Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Chad
Brown on San Diego Charger quarterback Stan Humphries. The
expectation is that Brown's hit will cost him at least $10,000.
The NFL has already fined seven players a total of $65,500 this
season for mugging quarterbacks. As a result, safeguarding the
passer is once again the hot-button debate around the league.
"They're protecting the quarterback so much it's getting
ridiculous," Arizona Cardinal safety Lorenzo Lynch says. "They
ought to put him in a bubble, like the pope."
The larger issue, the one that Vinson Smith kept returning to
last Saturday, is this: Is the NFL, in trying to protect
quarterbacks from career-shortening injuries, making pro
football a softer game?
One of NFL Films' most popular videos of recent years includes a
bleep-infested sideline rant by then New York Giant linebacker
Lawrence Taylor. Raging at his teammates to maintain their
intensity, Taylor screams, "We gotta go out there like a bunch
of crazed dogs!" Smith thinks the crazed dog is an endangered
species in the NFL. "What sells in this league?" he asks.
"Crunch Course. The 100 Greatest Hits. People love those videos.
Ferocious hitting is the game. That's what people want to see.
We throw our bodies around like crazy out there, and 80 percent
of the time we don't know what we've done until we watch film.
We've got to play on instinct--instinct that tells us that, at
any cost, I've got to get to the quarterback."
Last season 12 quarterbacks suffered concussions, and, says
Green Bay Packer coach Mike Holmgren, a member of the NFL
competition committee, "We had to address the issue, for the
health of the quarterbacks and the good of the league."
Since 1990 the committee had already passed three rules, to be
enforced by on-field penalties and/or off-field fines, that had
sackers seeing red: Pass rushers were no longer permitted to hit
a quarterback after the release of a pass unless they were
within one step of the passer at the time of release; pass
rushers were not allowed to strike a quarterback's head; and
offensive linemen were allowed to set one step back from the
line before the snap, so they could better position themselves
against the new breed of NFL speed rusher.
In March the league strengthened the head-hunting proscription
with the ban on leading with the helmet or the forearm and
added, "A defensive player must not 'launch' himself into a
passer or otherwise strike him in a way that causes the
defensive player's helmet or face mask to forcibly strike the
passer's head, neck or face, even if the initial contact of the
defender's helmet or face mask is lower than the passer's neck."
The committee also adopted a rule that makes it illegal for a
defender to "violently" throw a quarterback down and land on top
of him "with all or most of the defender's weight."
The league summoned all head coaches to Dallas in May to explain
the new rules and then sent game officials and videos to
training camps to show the players what was permissible and what
was not. In the second week of the preseason, Pittsburgh
linebacker Greg Lloyd hurled himself at Green Bay quarterback
Brett Favre just as Favre released a pass. The collision left
Favre with a concussion and Lloyd $12,000 poorer for leaving his
feet and hitting Favre in the head. Lloyd paid, but he is openly
contemptuous of the new rules. "They can continue to fine me,"
he says, "but I'm going to play the game as it's supposed to be
played, not the way it's played in the commissioner's office."
Smith's response to his fine was so vitriolic--among other
things, he was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times calling
Washington "a punk"--that the league may fine him for his
remarks. (He now insists that he never said some of what was
attributed to him.) But Washington calls the penalty meted out
to Smith for the Miller hit "an easy one,'' and adds, "Vinson
comes in, raises his arms, the quarterback sees him coming and
tries to duck, and Vinson goes down and hits him when he's
ducking. Vinson said he would have had to sprout wings to miss
him. But did you see the tape? He went after Miller's head."
The league crackdown may be having some effect. When Dallas beat
the Denver Broncos on Sept. 10, Cowboy defensive tackle Leon
Lett held back just as John Elway released a pass. "I kind of
bumped him," Lett says. "Last year I might have hit him."
Steeler pass rushers seem spooked by the new rules. Pittsburgh
led the league in sacks last year, but with largely the same
cast they were seventh as of Sunday. Says Steeler defensive
lineman Brentson Buckner, "Now I'm thinking, If I hit him here
or hit him there, it's going to be a fine. Second-guessing slows
you up." And Brown, the latest to be fined, seemed to know he
was going to receive the notice. "I left my feet and went
head-to-head [with Humphries]," he said last week. "We hadn't
even hit the ground, and I was thinking, That's going to cost me."
For the good of the game, it should. When a defender launches
himself at a quarterback, and the two players meet
helmet-to-helmet, the defender should be punished. It's bad for
the fans and it's bad business for the NFL when stars like
Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, Favre and San Francisco 49er
quarterback Steve Young aren't playing.
But fines alone are not the answer. Game officials must be more
aggressive at calling the penalty at the time of the infraction.
Of the eight hits that have resulted in fines, only three were
flagged as penalties. Defensive linemen must be made aware that
their team will suffer--to the tune of a 15-yard penalty, perhaps
at a crucial moment in a game--if they ignore the rules.
Defensive people will continue to say that the game is getting
softer. "In a subtle way," Washington Redskin defensive line
coach Bob Karmelowicz says, "they've disarmed defenses. Over
time it will be interesting to see what the psychological impact
is. For the football purist this is like the designated hitter
issue in baseball, taking away a part of the game fans looked
But if "softer" means that more quarterbacks will stay healthier
and have longer careers, the game will be better as a result.
And a ban on head-hunting won't exactly put pass rushers out of
business. "I haven't noticed any changes in their
aggressiveness," Aikman says. The stats bear that out. In 1994
there were 4.18 sacks per game; this season the figure is up to
"Defensive players keep saying, 'You're taking our game away,' "
says Washington, a star receiver for the 49ers in the 1970s. "I
understand their feelings, but we're all in this together, and
all we're trying to do is eliminate the unnecessary hits to the
quarterback, especially to the head. Players should want to win
because they're better, not because they've knocked somebody out
of the game so they could face an inferior player."
Washington will not have an easy time selling that argument to
defensive players. "I'm not changing," Vinson Smith vows.
"Football is a mean, brutal sport, and we have to play on
instinct. Look at animals. Look at the cheetah. When he wants
dinner, he's going to get it. Instinct tells him he's hungry,
and instinct tells him where to find the food. They can't stop
us from getting to the quarterback."
That is a costly vow these days in the NFL.