This isn't the National Football League I grew up to love—a game where a defender could stick his head in there and lay a receiver out across the middle of the field, an era when a linebacker could actually touch the quarterback without fear of retribution from the league office.
Now imagine what my father, who is old enough to have watched Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert play, is saying about the "no fun league" right now. After all, the era I grew up in was the mid-'90s, when some of the best defensive players to ever put on a uniform had already called it quits.
Today's article looks at how the NFL has transformed into nothing more than a game of two-hand touch. In the process, I will explain why it is bad for the sport.
Here Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers is called for a 15-yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore Ravens tight end Ed Dickson. While it was the "correct" call under the rules presented to each player prior to the start of a season, the rule is ridiculous.
Clark, who was fined $40,000 for the hit, had the following to say (via ESPN):
I was actually expecting to get a call back and say that it wasn't wrong, because it wasn't. I did everything I was asked to do and (NFL commissioner Roger) Goodell and all those other guys, they sit in their office with their suits and make these decisions on what a split-second reaction by the player is and this time it's wrong.
What exactly did the suits in New York City expect Clark to do there? Joe Flacco threw the ball to Dickson in stride between the hashes. In order to jolt the ball loose, Clark had to make a play on the intended receiver. It just so happened that his helmet made contact with Dickson's helmet.
Is Clark supposed to let up, risk a serious leg injury and just let Dickson catch the ball? Give me a break. This is one of those rules that make me want to throw my iPhone at the television during games.
This is just one glaring example in what has been a near decade-long turn towards wussification in the National Football League. We see these calls and fines repeated over and over again throughout the league on a weekly basis.
Clark's teammate with the Pittsburgh Steelers, James Harrison, despite being called a "violent, dangerous player" by colleagues, has also been a victim of this trend.
Harrison received a $50,000 fine for this hit on Mohamed Massaquoi of the Cleveland Browns back in 2010. While the hit was clearly illegal and somewhat dirty in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't even have been called a penalty just two decades prior.
Maybe Colt McCoy should have been fined for putting his wide receiver in a defenseless position against one of the most violent linebackers in the NFL. Maybe Massaquoi should have thought twice about going up the middle on a short slant against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After all, Jack Lambert was rarely fined for these types of hits as a member of the Steel Curtain.
This leads me to an important question: Would Lambert, Dick Butkus, Ronnie Lott or even unsung cornerback Lester Hayes be effective in the NFL today? While I cannot possibly answer a question as vague as that, I will say that even having to pose such a question should tell us all we need to know about the rules in the NFL today.
It's pretty obvious that this hit Ronnie Lott put on Mark Bavaro in the 1990-91 NFC championship game would have drawn a minimum of a $25,000 fine in the NFL today.
These are the plays made by some of the best and most intimidating defenders in the NFL prior to the modern era. It is what defined some of the best defenses to ever play the game. Equally as important, it served notice that linebackers and defensive backs could alter the outcome of a game just as much as quarterbacks and running backs.
Instead of allowing players' immediate reactions and skills to take over the field on Sundays, the NFL has forced defenders to think twice about how they should go about tackling an offensive player.
A most recent example of this is Dashon Goldson's hit on Aaron Hernandez in the San Francisco 49ers' Week 15 victory over the New England Patriots.
Apparently Goldson was supposed to let Hernandez come down with the ball, make a couple football moves, wave to his girl in the stands and chew on a pack of sunflower seeds before he actually made contact with the tight end.
I really want to know what Roger Goodell and Co. want Goldson and other defensive backs to do in situations like this. They say it is an illegal hit, but what would constitute a legal hit in a situation like that?
Mr. Goodell, is this the fine line?
Here, Goldson lays the wood on Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams back in 2011. The Pro Bowl safety was not called for a penalty, nor was he fined on this "legal" hit. The difference between these two hits is about one-tenth of a single second in real time. Apparently players are supposed to have that type of mental clock to be able to understand the difference.
Even more recently, we saw this Ed Reed get fined a whopping $55,000 for his hit on New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz in Week 15. If you haven't had a chance to see that "illegal" hit, check out it below.
Reed went shoulder first into Cruz's chest. It just so happened that his helmet made contact with the wide receiver. How can the NFL possibly justify a 15-yard penalty and a fine of over $50,000 for this hit? It makes absolutely no sense to me.
The future Hall of Fame safety was not hitting a defenseless receiver. Instead, he was making a play on the ball in order to prevent a reception. Again, those old men, who seem to have never played a game of even touch football, are setting rules that make absolutely no sense in the grand scheme of things.
It is somewhat like you telling a teacher how he/she should grade exams in the class without setting one foot inside the room. Unless you have any idea of what it means to play defensive back in the NFL, you shouldn't come across as some type of expert on guidelines in terms of how to govern them.
That needs to be left up to those who actually have an understanding of what it means to play that position and how you must go about making a tackle in order to help your defense be successful on the football field.
Does it look like Roger Goodell has one iota of understanding here?
Instead, Goodell is a son of a former United States Senator and never played football past the high school level. Beginning in 1982, he became an intern in the NFL and worked his way up the ranks in the most white-collar way possible.
Yet the commissioner is supposed to be some type of "enforcer," as evidenced by a recent Time magazine article that focused on his hands-on approach to governing the NFL. Goodell was quoted as saying the following during the lengthy interview:
I don't do things for public relations. I do things because they're the right thing to do, because I love the game. ... If you want to do the popular thing, be a cheerleader.
You don't do things for public relations, Mr. Goodell? You, sir, have been the commissioner of the National Football League for over six years now. Has your primary focus since taking the reins been creating a safer game for the players? No. It is only recently, since the national media turned attention to possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the NFL, that you have made this such a big deal.
Even in that vein you have failed. What about those NFL alums who are begging—no, demanding—an accountable league office when it comes to actually helping them get through major injuries they suffered on the football field? I guess their pain doesn't impact your bottom line, so the issues get swept under the rug.
It is the biggest hypocrisy in the professional sports world, indicating that player safety is somehow important to a league that has existed under the guise of willful ignorance for a good half-century now. Once these issues become paramount within mainstream American society, the powers that be in New York City pretend to actually give a damn.
When former NFL defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide back in 2011 and asked his family to donate his brain for tests on dementia, it wasn't a big deal around 345 Park Avenue in New York City. It wasn't until future Hall of Famer Junior Seau died at the hands of his own gun earlier this year that the NFL took action with the creation of the NFL Total Wellness program.
Raise your hand if you believe this is a coincidence. I didn't think so. Instead, it is a primary focus of the NFL and Goodell to win the public-relations battles when it comes to the long-term effects that the game has on its players. Duerson's suicide apparently wasn't newsworthy enough for Goodell to take action immediately following the tragic event.
One really has to wonder if the NFL's heart is in the right place when it comes to these ridiculous fines. While I fully understand the need to protect players, there is also something called the integrity of the game we all grew up loving. Do those hits that I showed above represent a dangerous aspect of football? Yes. But let's be serious for a second here. No one is pretending that the NFL isn't a dangerous sport.
If you want to play a sport that guarantees safety, why not take up curling?
On that note, the NFL does have a responsibility to protect its players. One of the primary ways to do that is to give them the necessary equipment on the football field on Sundays to be protected. This is something the NFL has failed to do with Goodell as commissioner, despite the fact that technological advances have enabled it to do so.
According to a recent report by The New York Times, the NFL still allows players to choose what types of helmets they want to wear on Sundays, even though certain models are far safer than others. The report goes on to say:
Even as head injuries have become a major concern, the N.F.L. has neither mandated nor officially recommended the helmet models that have tested as the top performers in protecting against collisions believed to be linked to concussions. Some players choose a helmet based on how it looks on television, or they simply wear the brand they have been using their whole career, even if its technology is antiquated. As a consequence, despite lawsuits related to head injuries and the sport’s ever-increasing speed and violence, some players are using helmets that appear to place them at greater risk.
If "there is no higher priority for the National Football League than the health and wellness of players," as Goodell suggests, why isn't something being done about this?
According to the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, injury-related issues weren't one of the first things that Goodell focused on when he took office in 2006. Instead, his primary focus was rebranding the league and attempting to stifle issues off the field.
Kenneth Shropshire, the director of the initiative, said of Goodell's early efforts as commissioner:
Most of the issues he dealt with early on...were "off-the-field problems, such as drug usage, assault and public intoxication." "Goodell developed a reputation for responding forcefully and quickly to crises."
The report goes on to say that as late as 2010, the NFL had not notified all 32 teams that having one or two concussions "leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly."
In the opinion of the powers that be in the NFL, it is important for defensive players to actually take a step back during the height of game action and decide whether their natural instincts are correct. All the while, the league fails to actually provide the players with the necessary equipment and education to stay upright and healthy on the football field.
Yeah, that makes a whole hell of a lot of sense.
The NFL is in the midst of an era in which player safety needs to become an issue of paramount importance. This much has already been decided. It's the way that the league is going about it that frustrates the masses. It is impacting the level of play on the football field in order to make a PR statement. In the process, the quality of football we see has dropped a great deal.
Telling Dashon Goldson that he cannot make a football play on the ball because it impacts the highest priority of the NFL, player safety, is beyond me. What if Goldson decides next time he is going to lower his head in order to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact and has a serious neck injury because of it?
Anyone that has ever played football understands that once your natural instincts are thrown out the window to serve some other bottom line, your safety on the football field is negatively impacted.
The NFL has become nothing more than a chaotic game of two-hand touch, and it is not making the players any safer. As I mentioned above, that the likes of Ronnie Lott and Jack Lambert might not be successful in the NFL today paints a negative picture of how the league has strayed from its roots.
Next time Tom Brady cries because he was hit a second late, take time to step back and understand how the health of the defender would be impacted if he had stopped on a dime after going full speed after Brady.
This is not a creative mess, nor is it a tidy idleness. Instead, it is chaotic dysfunction at its absolute worst. The NFL owes it to the players to keep them safe, but it also owes it to everyone else (players included) to make sure the product isn't negatively impacted.
If it was all about safety, we wouldn't have to worry too much about Harrison, Goldson, Reed or some other player being called for a ridiculous personal foul penalty. This issue would have been addressed long before.
I, for one, am not ready to tell NFL players that they need to actually go against natural instinct on the football field in order to appease suits in New York City that are only in it for the PR game.
That is outlandish.