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Simple fix for NFL's tough hits problem: Listen to players

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The NFL this season has sent a message to players that dangerous hits -- particularly hits to the head -- will not be tolerated and will result in fines and/or suspensions.

Good. It's about time. But there's one piece of unfinished business it must still address, and that is this: While the league's message is loud, it is not clear -- and if you don't believe me sit down with players. They don't seem to understand what is legal -- or acceptable -- and what is not.

Not anymore they don't. And neither do their coaches. Yeah, I know, the NFL sent out videos and rules clarifications to its 32 teams, but asking them to define what passes the litmus test is like asking them to explain the theory of relativity.

Scenes like Austin Collie getting knocked out caused the NFL to rightfully act, but the players should have a say. (US Presswire)  
Scenes like Austin Collie getting knocked out caused the NFL to rightfully act, but the players should have a say. (US Presswire)  
"I think I'm reasonably intelligent," one NFL assistant said, "and I try to see things from both sides. But after watching [a league video on the subject] I walked away from there thinking I'm more confused than when I came in this meeting."

Join the crowd. I've heard enough complaints the past two to three weeks to know it's time someone does something to refine the message -- and that someone is the NFL.

Look, I don't care whether you agree with players' complaints or not, but you can't deny there are a lot of people out there who don't understand what passes for good, clean, aggressive tackling anymore. So make them understand.

How? I thought you'd never ask. Assemble a panel that includes more than just members of the NFL officiating and operations offices. In essence, do what Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu suggests and include current and former players in the review process. Then maybe, just maybe, we start getting somewhere.

First of all, you'd have players join league officials in formulating a clear and consistent message. Second, you'd make a conciliatory gesture that could have repercussions in current and upcoming labor talks. I mean, if more players believed they were being heard by the NFL then maybe more players would be receptive to what the league had to say.

In any case, it makes sense because a lot of what's going on now does not -- and let me explain. It's one thing to declare a hit illegal, and the NFL rightly has done that with flagrant helmet-to-helmet blows. But it's another to enforce it, and too many people within the league complain that they don't know what's OK anymore.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he's satisfied with how rules are interpreted and enforced and is opposed to including past and current players in deciding punishments, but I can't believe he's satisfied with what he's hearing from the field. I know I wouldn't if I were commissioner. Too many players and coaches are in a quandary, and that's not good for anyone.

"The film that was shown to us led to more gray area," one coach said, "and anytime there's gray area it leads to one guy going fast and one guy going slow. It's just like a question at practice: Was it slow or was it live? Well, a guy blew out his knee because he wasn't sure."

So make them sure. Get players involved. Have them help define what is acceptable and what is not; what is a likely to draw a stiff fine and what is not; what is worthy of a suspension and what is not. Then have them report to their constituents because the constituents aren't all that happy and want a message they understand.

"Right now," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said, "it seems like they're just trying to get our money. I'd really like to see where that money goes because I got fined $15,000 this year for a chinstrap [violation]. What's that about? Every incident is different and should be looked at separately. Everything is different -- every intent is different -- and I don't think you can say every guy is trying to be malicious."

His solution?

"I'd like to see a panel," he said. "I'd like to see a guy like Mike Ditka on it or someone like maybe [former New England Patriots linebacker] Tedy Bruschi -- guys who played the game and who are unbiased. Then I'd add a couple of current players you respect, but I'd make a couple of them offensive players.

"Because if you talk to offensive players they don't agree with [what's happening], either. They understand there are certain plays where you have to take the hit. If you take the consequences for catching the football out, what's going to discourage players from making big plays and losing football games?"

Good question. Maybe that's why Philadelphia defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said "if you're trying to protect the offensive players, protect the defensive players, too." McDermott's point was this: Players are told not to lead with their helmets, and there are posters in every NFL locker room re-enforcing that message. But the lower an offensive player makes himself as a target the more likely it is that a tackler will lower his head, too -- with inevitable results.

"It's frustrating," one AFC head coach said, "because the interpretation of the rules changes from week to week, and it's based on media reaction. No one knows what's allowed anymore."

The hit on Colts wide receiver Austin Collie two weekends ago can serve as Exhibit A. Collie was hammered by two tacklers after catching a pass over the middle and turning upfield -- and the response was immediate. First of all, Collie dropped the football. Second, he was knocked unconscious. Third, the pass was ruled incomplete. Lastly, penalty flags were everywhere, with officials calling Philadelphia for unnecessary roughness.

Officials appeared to make the right call ... until replays showed that A) the pass probably should've been ruled complete, and B) that Collie was struck only after one of the defenders inadvertently hit the other into him. There was nothing malicious about the hit, and it was a borderline helmet-to-helmet blow. But officials acted immediately because, as one GM said, "there's been so much criticism that they're afraid to miss something."

Fair enough. But they did miss something, and I want players -- past and current -- there when the league reviews plays like that so that when someone is fined he not only understands but understands that his peers were behind it.

"I hate for us to look like hypocrites," McDermott said, "and say [to players], 'Hey, guys we have to get physical this week.' And then they're saying, 'Well, yeah, coach, then you pay the fine.'"

Involving players makes as much sense as, say, involving them in safety issues. The league has done that, with Goodell in the past including people like Tony Richardson, Jeff Saturday, Drew Brees and Takeo Spikes in discussions of helmet-to-helmet hits and how to protect against them.

That was smart, especially in light of the increased concern over concussions and their long-term impact on individuals. So make that move again, only this time put together a standing committee to help enforce rules and regulations. Then see where it takes you.

Maybe I'm naïve, but if the NFL did more to include players on controversial topics like fines and suspensions for what happens on the field, maybe players would respond by being more receptive to NFL directives in the future.

I guess what I'm saying is: What's the downside? Players don't understand what's happening now, anyway, so why not include them in the process to make sure that they do?

"Right now," Scott said, "you just have to play your game and wish for the best. Look at James Harrison [against Cleveland]. He had to separate man from ball, and that was something that won the game.

"So, now, do you make that hit, win the game and take the fine? Or do you not do it, let the guy catch it and let them win the game? It's a tough decision to make."

Getting players involved is not. It would help define the message, and it might help facilitate future labor talks. Tell me what's not to like about that.

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