Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The NFL's Head Game

That is not a pretty picture. But it's prettier than what happened moments earlier, when Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson was knocked unconscious by Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson.

Jackson won't be playing anytime soon. Neither will several other players who suffered concussions in recent NFL games. Now, the league has announced a new approach that could suspend players who "lead with their heads" when tackling.

It's about time.

People who've been around the game for years, like Hall of Fame coach John Madden, realize what's happened to the game. The helmet and facemask, introduced as safety devices, have become weapons. Tackling techniques once taught to young players have been abandoned by defensive players searching for the knockout blow.

The most dangerous plays are passing plays. Receivers (and quarterbacks) are vulnerable as they attempt to throw or catch. And defenders no longer seek to tackle the other player or simply knock the pass away. Instead, they try to "blow up" the other guy.

Football already has rules against headhunting. The problem is, they don't work because the practice has become so embedded in the game. Quick: how many times a game do you see a cornerback cover his receiver by trying to slap the pass away? More likely, his defensive move will be to "separate" the man from the ball (a euphemism for drilling the guy so hard he coughs up the ball).

Football is a violent, physical game. But somewhere along the way, it changed from a game of running, passing, catching, blocking, and tackling into a game of hitting. Think about it: that's a significant change. If the NFL now means to penalize players for their intent to lead with their helmeted heads, I believe it'll merely open a new Pandora's box of problems.

What pro football needs to do instead is at once simple and complex: it needs to return the game to a game of tackling. It might be a less-violent game (and it might harm the NFL's soaring TV ratings). Rules promoting tackling (as opposed to hitting) need to be written and enforced. Hard questions need to be asked about whether helmets and facemasks have become more of a problem than a solution. And the culture that celebrates a violent, potentially life-changing collision needs to be changed.

Good luck with all that.

No comments: