The time has come for the National Football League to decide just what exactly it wants to be. Does it wish to remain America's passion or become some kind of watered-down version of the extremely physical and, at times, even violent game it has spent the last 90 years evolving into? Perhaps the folks at 280 Park Ave. and the team owners who support them prefer a new hybrid version of the game, part touch football and part tackle? Or is it time for the NFL to just put flags on everybody, maybe even some nice pink dresses on the quarterbacks, and outlaw physical contact altogether? I can't, for the life of me, figure out where the powers-that-be who run the sport are trying to take us.
Two of the best matchups in the second week of NFL 2011 were the Chicago Bears visiting the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers at the New England Patriots, and both offered stark examples of one of the bigger problems facing the NFL today. How is the NFL going to protect its players without ruining the game?
With just over 7:00 remaining in the first quarter of the Saints-Bears game, New Orleans came up with a crucial stop of the Bears on 3rd-and-6 at the Saints' 15-yard line. On a safety blitz off the weak side of the Bears' formation, Roman Harper came untouched, plowed into Jay Cutler and brought him to the ground as Cutler released the ball, forcing the Bears' QB to throw short and turf the ball. It was as clean and well-executed a play as you'll see on an NFL field. But a roughing-the-passer penalty was called, the Bears were given an automatic first down, and two plays, they later scored the game's first touchdown.
The only thing Harper was guilty of was attempting to tackle the quarterback. He arrived exactly as Cutler was releasing the ball, his helmet was up, he led with his shoulder and he landed flat on top of Cutler, not driving him into the ground at all. The call stunk, and if you don't believe or agree with me, consider that the game announcer was Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman, who spent the next minute or two going over the replay, trying to find the foul and, in the end, offering a verbal version of throwing his hands up in the air and asking: What are they doing to the game? Cutler spent the rest of the game begging for flags every time he was thrown to the ground, which was repeatedly, and it became more and more impossible to know what was "roughing the passer" and what wasn't.
A few hours later, the Chargers had the ball 1st-and-10 at their own 24 with 1:44 gone in the second quarter. Philip Rivers attempted to go deep down the near sideline but overthrew his receiver, in part because Andre Carter was collapsing all over him while attempting to stop the play. Once again the pass rusher arrived on time, unable to stop on a dime and unwilling to just quit halfway through a play in an attempt to obey an unobeyable rule, and Carter took Rivers to the ground. Carter was flagged, and this time the commentator was Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms, who said — and we're paraphrasing him: That's life in the new NFL, but I really don't get what they expect the defensive man to do, just take a step and quit whether the play's over or not?
If the great quarterbacks don't get it, who can?
Fortunately neither of those flags impacted the outcomes of the games, but both screamed the question: What are they doing to our game? It is one thing to flag a player for going at another's knees, hitting from behind, horse-collaring a player or leading with a helmet.
But the flags thrown on Harper, Carter and a number of others during the first two weeks of the season for making good, hard, clean football plays were based on nothing but the official's whim. Those calls make the men in stripes look like boobs and, if anything, make the game even more dangerous as players try to make split-second decisions while playing at full speed. The more it happens, the more damage will be done to our game.