Who wouldn't support all reasonable and intelligent efforts by the National Football League to protect its players? I know I support that concept 100 percent.
However, I have very serious doubts that there is anything at all reasonable or intelligent about what the NFL's powers-that-be have done in recent days in the name of protecting players, and in fact, I have real concerns that they have both harmed the game and made it more dangerous.
The NFL should absolutely fine and/or suspend players for what appear to be intentional helmet-to-helmet hits, launching themselves at the head or neck of another player, and any other blows clearly aimed at another player's head or neck as long as film clearly shows the violation of the rules took place.
But after reading and rereading commissioner Roger Goodell's memo to all 32 teams and attempting to study the four-minute video that accompanied it, it is clear that is not all Goodell and NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson are saying. They also intend to discipline players for what they consider excessive violence or dangerous hits, regardless of whether they are made within the rules or not.
I have now watched Dunta Robinson's demolition of DeSean Jackson at least 30 times to try to understand where any rule was broken. Robinson clearly lowers his right shoulder and hits Jackson in the chest attempting to separate Jackson from the ball, as I'm sure he's been taught since midget football. Robinson's helmet then makes contact with Jackson's right shoulder, caused as much by Jackson's momentum into him as his own. Whether Jackson was concussed by that contact or his head hitting the ground is unclear, but Anderson calls the play illegal because Jackson was "defenseless." It was 3rd-and-6. What was Robinson supposed to do, decide in a split second to just concede the first down because he had properly diagnosed the play but noticed that somebody might get hurt?
In the same four-minute video in which Anderson indicts Robinson, he shows Bears WR Earl Bennett destroying Seattle P Jon Ryan on a punt-return play. Anderson calls it clean because Bennett turns his shoulder and hits Ryan in the chest, similar to what Robinson tried to do to Jackson. While I agree that Bennett's play was clean, the only real difference between his hit and Robinson's was that, if anything, Ryan was more defenseless than Jackson.
The bottom line is you cannot discipline players for plays that don't break the rules, and you can't just change the rules or bend them to satisfy your interpretation after the game has been played in the name of protecting players. It's not fair, and all you can possibly accomplish is to place doubts in players' minds, causing them to play the game at less than full speed. Anyone who's ever put on pads has been told the first rule is to know that most injuries occur when you hesitate or play the game at less than full speed.
I have heard a number of players suggest the real motivation here is to protect the owners from liability to players who are badly injured, but I don't believe that to be true. I believe this is just a poorly conceived, terrible overreaction to a number of disturbing highlights all popping up on the same Sunday. If it was an actual, viable safety plan, wouldn't it have to speak to the helmet-to-helmet hits that occur between linemen at the line of scrimmage on almost every play, or all of the times that running backs and wide receivers lower their shoulders at the point of contact and end up leading with their helmets and the jeopardy that places defenders in, again, on almost every play?
At the end of the day, whether we like it and what it says about us or not, it is its violence that plays a huge role in making football the most popular game in America. Protecting the men who play it should absolutely be priority one, but by attempting to do it by arbitrarily enforcing rules and to legislate only the violence that results in injury, you can only diminish the game and make it that much more dangerous.
This column was first published in the Oct. 31 print edition of Pro Football Weekly, which is on sale at retail outlets and can also be purchased at PFWstore.com. The print edition contains a cover story on the Jets' potent ground game and their equally stifling run defense, our all-time NFL All-Rookie team, previews of all Week Eight games and the first in a series of position-by-position previews of the top prospects in the 2011 NFL draft, beginning with quarterbacks.