Helmets are the hardest part of a football player's body.
Helmets were invented as a way to protect players' heads. However, because helmets are the hardest part of a player's body, players have learned to use it as a weapon to disrupt the goals of the other team. Players use their helmets to attempt to dislodge the football from a running back's grasp, they try to hit a WR with their helmet to prevent them from holding onto a catchable ball, they use the helmet to deliver a hard hit and send a message not to come over the middle, etc. None of these actions are inherently bad and all are competitively useful. However, there are unintended consequences because players are basically using their head as a hammer. Head and neck injuries are no joke, and must be avoided. Putting a player's best defensive tool (their hard helmet) on their heads encourages players to use their heads more often, not less often. There is some protection availed by putting a helmet on somebody's head, but it does not outweigh the increase in dangerous use. Thus, the governing body of the sport must find a way to afford even more protection to the head and/or decrease the dangerous use of the helmets. I propose a three fold solution:
1. Improve protection by incorporating crumple zones and padding on the outside of helmets, as well as utilizing other new technologies to protect players. As helmets are made now, they ONLY protect the wearer. They do NOTHING to protect the other 21 players on the field. In fact, they create a more dangerous environment for the other 21 players on the field. (e.g. If you had 22 people on a desert island who needed to protect themselves from each other, they'd each be able to protect themselves better with knives, but that'd make the island a much more dangerous place for everybody)
2. Decrease the dangerous use of helmets by limiting the benefit of using the helmet as a weapon by adding padding to the outside of the helmet.
3. Decrease the dangerous use by punishing players for the damage that they do: Give somebody a concussion that keeps them out of their next two games? You have to sit your next two games. Force players to take personal responsibility for their actions on the field.
Let's look at a few of the examples from this past Sunday:
Brandon Meriweather vs. Todd Heap
Heap jumps up for the ball and as he's landing, Meriweather positions his helmet to knock the ball out of Heap's hands if he catches it... Heap doesn't catch it, so there's no ball between Meriweather's helmet and Heap's facemask... direct spearing hit to the head ensues. The main problem with this hit is that Meriweather isn't watching the football, he watches where the football is going to go, ducks his head, and spears his helmet where he thought the football would be. He could have used his hands to try to break up the pass, but because his helmet is bigger and harder, he decided to use the better tool. Under my proposed situation, Meriweather's helmet is covered by some padding to lessen the blow, protect both players, and he is punished for every game Heap misses because of the hit. Knowing that he may be suspended, he may opt for a less dangerous option like using his hands or his facemask instead of spearing at the ball with the crown of his helmet.
James Harrison vs. Josh Cribbs
Now, this is a pretty bad hit. Cribbs is getting tackled, Harrison is following the play, keeps his head up watching the entire thing, then at the very end ducks his head to spear Cribbs in his earhole. He knocks Cribbs out cold, who fumbles the ball. I chose this video to show the disgusting glorification of the hit by fans of his team. There's not much to do here except to change the rules... it's a situation that's in the gray area where he's trying to stop a the forward progress of a player who should be expecting to be hit. However, if you watch the replay, he lines up Cribbs, then at the last second ducks his head to deliver the "devastating blow." He even admits that he's out to try and hurt people. To me, this is needless violence and exactly what the NFL shouldn't tolerate. It's doesn't need to prevent the Patrick Willis hit on Reggie Bush, or the same type of hit on Bush by an Sheldon Williams in last year's playoffs. It's trying to prevent people from lining up a player and deciding to hurt/injure them instead of just tackle them. How do you prevent this? Lessen the impact of his most harmful weapon. Take away his playing time. Suspend him for the duration of the injury he causes.
James Harrison vs. Mohamed Massaquoi
Massaquoi catches a ball coming across the middle of a zone, Harrison is there to stop him in his tracks. I, honestly, don't have too much of a problem with this hit. Harrison is coming up to make a tackle, Massaquoi sees him and ducks as Harrison is aiming at his chest, Massaquoi's head ends up where his chest just was, and unfortunately gets smashed. This is an unintended helmet to helmet contact. Start watching at 0:48 seconds, and double click to step through the play. You can see Massaquoi catch the ball, turn up field, see Harrison, and duck (even leading with his helmet!)... right as Harrison is making his tackle. This is a situation where having protection to absorb the contact would help, but to me it's just an unfortunate situation where a Massaquoi's natural human instict to duck and compact his body put himself in a harmful situation.
Dunta Robinson vs. DeSean Jackson
Jackson catches the ball coming across a zone, Robinson comes in from the opposite direction and attempts to spear his helmet through the ball. Fortunately, he is a little earlier than James Harrison was and Jackson doesn't have time to duck his head, but it's still a nasty situation. Double clicking through the replay, you can see Robinson get there and duck his head right where the ball was at the time. I'm no doctor, but given that he didn't hit Jackson in the helmet, it looks like the major issue for Jackson was whiplash (watch how far back his head snaps) followed by impact with the ground. Guess what? Putting a heavy helmet on your head is going to make whiplash worse! Put some more padding on the helmet, try to make it a bit lighter (there are good modern composite materials for this), and you'll dampen out a lot of the impact forces. In general, you have to discourage players from spearing the football with their helmet. Suspending Robinson for every game Jackson misses is probably the best you can do.
So, of the four situations, two of them were defenders trying to put their helmet through a football and missing, one was a deliberate malicious act, and the other was an unfortunate situation of a players self preservation instincts putting himself in a more dangerous situation. All could be helped with lighter, more padded helmets, and all could be at least somewhat discouraged by "eye for an eye" suspension punishment and lessening the impact of a football player's best weapon (their helmet).
I hear all these football people claiming that you're asking players to stop playing the way they've been taught to tackle throughout their football playing career. I never played football myself, but all the time I hear people saying "Coaches teach you to tackle with your facemask" and to keep your head up or you'll risk a neck injury. As a tackler, you do NOT want to duck your head, get your head pushed down, and then run over because that's EXACTLY how you break your own neck. Keep your face up, wrap up, and make the tackle. If these players actually followed the mantras of every single one of their coaches instead of turning themselves into blind missles with their heads down, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Asking them to tackle properly is not neutering the game, it is asking it to be played properly. For example:
Let's take a look back at Willis' hit on Reggie Bush, and laud Willis not for his excellent football playing ability, but for his ability to MAKE A HARD TACKLE WITHOUT RISKING INJURY TO ANYBODY. Watch the last replay (starts at 0:33). Notice how he keeps his head up? Notice how he wraps up instead of turning his body into a missle? Notice how he watches the play instead of ducking his head and missling at where he thinks the ball is? This is how you make a tackle... this is how you deliver a hard hit. Was that any less exciting than hard spearing tackles? And it's not just Patrick Willis who knows how to make a good hard tackle without spearing somebody:
Notice how the best MLBs in the game do NOT missle people? Do you think it's a coincidence that the best of the best know how to tackle properly?