There are few surer tacklers or harder hitters in the NFL than Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard. So when I consulted him on where the game is going, I wanted his take on what the league might look like in, say, 10 to 15 years.
Not surprisingly, he said it would continue to be played and watched by millions. But it's what he said afterward that I didn't expect.
"Thirty years from now," he said, "I don't think it will be in existence. I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going -- where they [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else -- there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it.
"Guys are getting fined, and they're talking about, 'Let's take away the strike zone' and 'Take the pads off' or 'Take the helmets off.' It's going to be a thing where fans aren't going to want to watch it anymore."
As Pollard said, that's his opinion. But it's also his opinion that, no matter what the NFL tries to legislate, it could be headed for trouble. Let him explain.
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"The league is trying to move in the right direction [with player safety]," he said, "but, at the same time, [coaches] want bigger, stronger and faster year in and year out. And that means you're going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees. The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field. We've had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.
"Like I said, I pray it never happens, but you've got guys who are 350 pounds running 4.5 and 4.4s, and these owners and coaches want scout-run blockers and linemen to move walls. At the same time, they tell you, 'Don't hit here, and don't hit there, or we'll take your money.' Like I said, I hope I'm wrong, but I just believe one day there's going to be a death that takes place on the field because of the direction we're going."
Pollard understands the NFL is emphasizing player safety not only to prevent a worst-case scenario like that from happening but also to reduce the number of serious injuries -- such as concussions and torn knee ligaments. But quarterback Carson Palmer expressed the same sentiment when he spoke to Sports Illustrated's Peter King in 2009, saying the game had become so violent that "at some point, somebody is going to die."
He offered no solution, and neither did Pollard. But both are sharp guys who make cogent observations from opposite sides of the ball. In fact, Pollard is so thoughtful, so articulate and so accommodating that he's one of the first interviews that I seek in the Ravens' locker room. If you're talking about "big picture," he can draw it for you, talking expansively on trends or matchups or history.
On the field, however, he is The Irresistible Force, a punishing tackler who makes some of the hardest, most violent stops in the game ... someone rewind the videotape to last weekend's AFC Championship Game.
It was early in the fourth quarter that Pollard hammered New England running back Stevan Ridley with a head-on tackle, forcing him to fumble and to leave the game with what later was diagnosed as a concussion. The hit was legal, but it was brutal, too, and Pollard understands what people must think of him.
At the same time, he understands his job is to help his team succeed. After the Ravens' 28-13 victory, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh called Pollard's hit "the turning point of the game," saying it was "as good a tackle as you're ever going to see in football."
Nevertheless, when people think of Pollard, they still remember his hit on quarterback Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener, a blow that ended Brady's season. Or they think of the big-hitting safety who, by his own estimation, has "well over hundreds of thousands" of dollars in fines over the years -- including a reported $15,250 for a shot on wide receiver Wes Welker last weekend.
Former safety Rodney Harrison drew substantial fines, too, and believed he was unfairly targeted by the NFL. Pollard doesn't know if that's the case with him, and, frankly, he doesn't care.
"It's not going to change the way I play," he said. "I've been taught to play one way my whole career, my whole life, and I've never been a malicious player. I play the game hard and physical, just the way our defense does. You can't play it any other way because it means you're thinking. And in a fast-paced game, you can't play that way.
"I know who I am. So does my family and my teammates. Like I said, I've never been a malicious player. If you ever get a chance to meet me outside of football, I'm a cool dude who loves to laugh and loves to have fun. But I'm an old-school player who is going to hit you and who loves to tackle and is going to continue to do what I can to help the team.
"We are defenders. And when I talk to people I ask them, 'How would you behave if someone kicks in the door and is going to come into your house? Let's see how you defend your house; let's see how you react.'
"I protect. Someone comes in who's unwanted, and you see what happens. The switch goes on. Football is a violent sport, and sometimes bad things happen. Some people don't like it. But at the end of the day, I've got to feed my family, and this is how I do it."