Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu recently brought an interesting issue to the forefront. He said that the NFL is over-legislating the game through fines and suspensions and is turning football into a "pansy" sport. There is some truth to his comments, but this is an incredibly complex issue.
We all love big hits. Is anything more exciting than Sheldon Brown or Brian Dawkins leveling a running back or wide receiver? Football players today are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. They are able to deliver an incredible amount of force when making a tackle or a hit. While we love those big hits and want to see them continue, there is also the issue of player safety.
Teams want to guard the safety of their star skill players for a couple of reasons. First, the players are key to the team's success. Take out Calvin Johnson with a big hit and see what happens to the Lions offense. Take out Clinton Portis with a big hit and see what happens to the Redskins offense. Take Drew Brees out of the lineup after a major shot and see how good the Saints are.
The second reason is money. Brees is well-paid by the Saints. They don't want their highest-paid player sitting on the sidelines. If the team wins and Brees plays well that keeps the seats full. That also sells more jerseys, calendars and other collectibles. Brees is their quarterback, but he's also a big investment. They have to protect him. They'd be foolish not to.
Most big hits don't lead to serious injuries. ACL tears usually seem to be the result of a player making an awkward cut or move. Sometimes a knee gets bent the wrong way on a standard tackle. Whatever the case, it isn't big shots that pose a major problem to knees. The one injury that does come from violent hits is concussions.
Twenty or thirty years ago you simply "had your bell rung." When you stopped seeing stars and knew what city you were playing in, you got back on the field. Concussions became more of a serious issue in the mid-90s. I remember seeing an ESPN report where former Jets receiver Al Toon talked about the fact he couldn't even look at a ceiling fan. The combination of light and movement gave him incredible headaches. Looking at a merry-go-round would have been torturous. Other players began to admit recurring problems due to having multiple concussions during their playing days. Joe Banner on Eagles Live!
Concussions gained more attention because of a pair of star quarterbacks. Troy Aikman and Steve Young both had their careers end prematurely due to concussions. Both guys seem fine at this point, but were told that another big hit could have severe consequences.
The situation took on a whole new light after the tragic death of former Eagle Andre Waters in 2006. Doctors found that Waters' brain tissue was damaged. He was 44 years old, but his brain looked like that of an 85-year-old man. Waters suffered quite a few concussions during his playing days. Some researchers said that Waters' erratic behavior in his final couple of years was due to the effects of the concussions. There isn't definitive proof, but research continues on the subject.
Waters' death and the subsequent story seemed to get the attention of the football world. Missing a game or multiple games with a concussion didn't happen too much in the past. That is now almost expected. There isn't a negative stigma attached to concussions anymore. Teams, players, media and fans now understand the seriousness of these injuries.
My favorite safety tandem ever is Waters and Wes Hopkins. Those two guys ruled the middle of the field. They were violent, explosive hitters. Running backs and receivers knew to be on the lookout for number 20 and number 48. I loved watching them. They punished players together for almost a decade. In the "House of Pain" game against the Oilers in 1991, Hopkins had three big-time hits on receivers coming over the middle. He was flagged for one when he hit a receiver's helmet with his forearm. Today, he would be fined and possibly suspended for that hit. I'm honestly not sure if Hopkins and Waters could play in today's NFL.
You don't want to take the violence out of the game. That is what the league has to balance along with player safety. I grew up watching Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley, Gary Fencik, Joey Browner and Dennis Smith punish players on a weekly basis. Violence and intimidation were part of their game, just like Waters and Hopkins. What would Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke say if they were fined for making a big hit? Hardy Brown would have been banned from the league with today's rules and regulations.
Some players have already had their careers changed due to violent hits. Chuck Cecil was a vicious hitter when he played from 1988-1995. He is the first player I recall getting heavily fined by the league for big hits. In 1993, Sports Illustrated put Cecil on the cover and asked "Is Chuck Cecil Too Vicious for the NFL?" The league changed the way Cecil played and it affected his game. He was unsigned for the 1994 season, and then returned for a final year in 1995.
Kenoy Kennedy played for the Broncos and Lions from 2000-2007. He was fined heavily and warned by the league early in his career about big hits. He wasn't the same player late in his career as he was early on. He toned down his game and it hurt his level of play. Thirty years ago he would have been celebrated for his violent hits, but not in today's game. He was forced to play a more subdued style. Kennedy isn't an athletic cover safety. Without the ability to be a big hitter, he became expendable.
I'm not exactly sure what the league can do to keep the violence in the game, but also control it. That is a very tough task. I certainly don't want players ending up like Andre Waters did, but I also don't want the brutal nature taken out of football. That is part of what makes the game special.
TIME TO TAKE ADVANTAGE
The Eagles got some help the last couple of weeks. Dallas lost two games. The Redskins lost once and struggled in the other game. The Giants got whipped by the Browns, but recovered with a nice win over the Niners.
I don't think you could ask for more from a bye week than to get healthy and gain ground in the division. Things are starting to break well for the Eagles. Now the team has to take advantage of the situation by winning some games. The Falcons come to town on Sunday. Forget about the 3-3 start and focus on the next 10 weeks. That's the season.