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Much Ado About Nothing: The NFL's New Helmet-to-Helmet Policy

Patrick Willis, you don't have to worry about fines because you practice good fundamentals.
Patrick Willis, you don't have to worry about fines because you practice good fundamentals.

I originally wanted to title this post "Is it the End of the World As We Know It, or Much Ado About Nothing: The NFL"s New Helmt-to-Helmet policy", but that's a bit unwieldy so I shortened it some. From my original title you can probably guess what this topic is going to be on and you'd be right.

First some background:

This past Saturday Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down after a violent helmet-to-helmet hit.

On Sunday James Harrison had two helmet-to-helmet hits in the same game--one against Josh Cribs and one against WR Mohamed Mossaquoi. Cribs suffered a concussion and had to leave the game as did Mossaquoi. Harrison would be fined $75,000 for those hits. On both hits Harrison deliberately led with his helmet.

Brandon Merriweather had a vicious hit on TE Todd Heap that would knock Heap out of the game. What's particularly galling about the Merriweather hit is that Heap was not involved in the play anymore yet Merriweather launched himself at Heap with the intent to hurt. He would be fined $50,000 by the league.

The third notable NFL hit came from Dunta Robinson on Desean Jackson. That hit would knock both players out of the game. Robinson's hit was not a helmet-to-helmet hit, but he did launch himself at the wide receiver and he did lead with his head. He would be fined $50,000 by the league.

Here's what Roger Goodell had to say about the new punishments for these types of hits.

"One of our most important priorities is protecting our players from needless injury," Commissioner Goodell said. "In recent years, we have emphasized minimizing contact to the head and neck, especially where a defenseless player is involved. It is clear to me that further action is required to emphasize the importance of teaching safe and controlled techniques, and of playing within the rules. It is incumbent on all of us to support the rules we have in place to protect players."

The memo makes three points.

1. Players are expected to know the rules and play within them. The NFL is not making a rule change mid-season, but simply announcing stiffer penalties. Players who do not obey the rules can expect larger fines and suspension.

2. Coaches have responsibility too. I think that often times coaches kind of shrug their shoulders at some of these rules with an attitude of "that's not an important rule". Now if a team has a player who has repeated violations both the coach and the team can face discipline.

3. Game officials are now directed to pay particular attention and have been given the authority to eject players for hits like those discussed above.

Now in the case of these three hits I think the fines on Harrison and Merriweather were both completely justified. Dunta Robinson didn't hit Jackson in the helmet but there's no reason for him to lead with his head like that, so I can see where some disagreement can come from on that.

Now on to some player reaction:

Patrick Willis (via mattbarrows twitter feed)

"I thought that's what you're supposed to do. I thought a defensive player was supposed to hit."

Ray Lewis thinks that " . . .the game will be diluted very quickly".

Interestingly enough, the recipient of one of those hits doesn't think that it's a big deal. Josh Cribs tweeted this the other day:

I have no bad will towards LB James Harrison. That's what he's suppose to do knock people out, it's what makes him one of the best....

On the other hand Mossaquoi's agent was livid with the NFL for only fining Harrison $75k.

"They fined him $75,000 and he's earned over $20 million the past couple years. What kind of deterrent is that? That's less than 1 percent. I think the only way you deter this type of behavior is to suspend him. You have to make the team play without one of their best players. Cleveland might be without Mohamed this week and Harrison plays on for the Steelers. How is that fair to the Browns?

"The Browns are going to be minus a starter. The Steelers should be minus a starter."

On the flip side Harrison's agent said the fines were "staggering" and would appeal.

This rule regarding launching yourself at opposing players is not new. It was put in place a year or two ago and expanded this off-season. It's clear to me that most NFL players don't bother actually reading the rules and if they do they don't actually care about the rule or there wouldn't be this huge shock over getting suspended for breaking it.

Will this destroy professional football? Only if the NFL continues to allow hits like this. First and foremost launching yourself at another player is horrible football fundamentals. Poor tackling is something I've complained about for years and it seems to only get worse. In my view the main reason why tackling has gotten so bad is because players are looking to make the big hit so they can be on the highlight films. Josh Cribbs said that Harrison's job was to knock him out--no it's not. Harrison's job is to tackle Cribbs, plain and simple. It's not to "knock him out".

This reminds me of a classroom full of kids who've had their way with the teacher for most of the year only to have the teacher suddenly get tough and actually start enforcing the rules. It's clear that fines aren't going to get the job done, even fines of $50k or more. A rookie making the NFL minimum can pay a $50k fine and not sweat it. A player making millions a year and a $50k fine is spending change.

Clearly NFL players were disregarding the existing rule. Increased fines aren't working, so you've got to go the next step which is suspension and possible ejection from games.

What do you think?

If you want to view the hits all can easily be found on You Tube.

The NFL has released the instructional video that it forwarded to all the teams. I think that if people actually take the time to watch it they'll understand what the league is trying to do here, which is not to take hard hitting out of the game. I'm not generally a supporter of the NFL, but in this case I think they're doing absolutely the right thing.

NFL Video