'You Have to Be Violent': NFL Defenders Feel Trapped in a War for Game's Soul

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterJanuary 5, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end L.T. Walton (96), outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) and free safety Mike Mitchell (23) stop Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette (27) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)
Fred Vuich/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — This is not a rant. He hates that phrasing. Loathes that phrasing.

A rant carries connotations of being ignorant and stupid and, no, Mike Mitchell is none of that. Pissed? Absolutely. Confused to the brink of incensed? Sure. But anyone labeling him dirty, yeah, "screw those people," the Steelers safety says gently. Do your homework, he suggests, and you'll see that his personal fouls are down over his last 50 games.

Worst of all, Mitchell believes his articulate message earlier in the month was shoved into an incinerator and spit out in three-word sound bites, completely warping his point. He's ticked that former players in cushy pregame chairs made him out to be some "angry black man" for pointing out how inconsistent the NFL is with its discipline.

So, approached a few weeks later, Mitchell taps the stool next to his locker and says to take a seat. He prefers looking one person in the eyes when he makes a point. There's no small talk. Mitchell is concerned. Mitchell is disappointed. Mitchell doesn't have a clue how anyone can play with violence in today's NFL.

What's legal? What's illegal? Lines blur like never before, destroying the game he loves.

He'd like a detailed job description, please. "Are we supposed to just allow people to catch footballs now?" asks Mitchell.

He'll be at the next competition committee meeting and plans to chat with Roger Goodell. "I don't want to hear it from moms or people who are influenced by moms that are trying to change this game. This game was made on violence."

He ponders what'll happen to, say, the UFC in a decade: "Those dudes signed up to fight. They know what they're getting into. But at some point there's going to be a mom who'll say, 'That's too violent.' What do you mean? They're fighting. … It's not like football is a finesse game and we're just breaking rules out here."

He's ticked that his teammate, Ryan Shazier, injured his spine abiding by what Mitchell calls "a made-up" target zone. "If you have to get paralyzed to try to protect an offensive player, I'm going to knock the offensive player off every time because I'm not going to do it."

He hears you, Tedy Bruschi, saying he set the game back: "Dude, you played with Rodney Harrison. I don't want to hear you talk again. And I love Rodney Harrison for his game. He couldn't play in today's league. John Lynch isn't playing in today's league. Brian Dawkins isn't playing in today's league."

All in all, he's exasperated. "I'm borderline joining the rest of the country and just be a NBA fan."

Before peppering Mitchell's Twitter timeline with links to all the damning concussion statistics, and to the multiple studies that tie kids who play tackle football to brain issues later in life, understand this: Mitchell gets it. He knows a damaged brain could affect him later in life. But he also knows this game is inherently violent. If the NFL wanted to eliminate head trauma, it'd need to eliminate all physical contact. All subconcussive hits. It'd need to slap a nicotine patch on and quit smoking altogether (warning: video contains NSFW language). 

Instead, Goodell seeks a sweet spot that may not even exist. A mythical middle ground. And this ambiguous gray area drives defensive players mad.

Players like the group right here in Pittsburgh chasing a Super Bowl.

Welcome to the unofficial front lines of the war for football's soul, the Steel City. For decades, this franchise has been synonymous with the sport itself. From John Facenda's NFL Films voice growling to slow-motion clips of Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, to a sea of yellow towels surrounding Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene in the 1990s, to Troy Polamalu and James Harrison winning a pair of Super Bowls in 2000s, to this defense today.

As the temperatures drop, and the brutality of football's roots is magnified, this Steelers defense will keep fighting for the sport itself.

"I still love the game," Mitchell says. "My comments are to protect the game of football."

As he puts it, there are hammers and nails in life, and this is a game forever fueled by hammers.

The more the league suppresses violence, the more it forces defensive players to think…and think…an extra split-second before tackling anyone, the more it'll resemble something other than football, players fear. Hammers will be outlawed.

Until then, the Steelers swing away.


ROUND 2 LOOMS. There's a decent chance that Mitchell meets Leonard Fournette—228 pounds of muscle—mano a mano in the hole again and the two leave each other with bruises that sting all offseason. Back in October, the Jaguars running back turned a corner, waved No. 23 on, and the two collided with enough shivering force to make you puke up your Primanti Bros. sandwich.

After cutting him down, Mitchell jolted to his feet, pumped a fist and (inadvertently?) butted Fournette's head.

They never knew each other. The clash could've made the two enemies for life. Instead, a mutual respect was born. Fournette told Mitchell he never faced a safety like him, and Mitchell told Fournette he was destined for greatness. The two then kept in touch all season on Instagram.

Mitchell never thought twice about taking on that lance of a left shoulder Fournette lowered.

Which is why he was stunned to see a cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals "literally just watch" Le'Veon Bell glide down the sideline later in the season. All that was missing, in Mitchell's mind, was a white flag in William Jackson's hand. Mitchell concluded that Jackson was either a) terrified of paying a fine or b) soft.

Answer A would be understandable. A lake-effect storm of flags across the NFL has droves of defensive backs on their first contract second-guessing any hit at any moment.

But if the answer was B, that's more troubling. That means the soul of Mitchell's sport is being crushed. Football has always been a war of attrition, Mitchell explains. You must decide, at an early age, if the sport's violence is for you.

"Cut all the B.S. out," Mitchell says. "It starts with 'Are you tough enough?'"

It's the question every player needs to answer sooner or later. A moment of truth. Safety J.J. Wilcox remembers riding the bench up to his senior year of high school. That's when his father said that if he didn't start hitting fools, he'd ride the bench as a 12th-grader and that'd be, you know, "pretty sad." Wilcox promptly took names, kicked ass and has played in the pros for five seasons. The conversation still drives him.

Mitchell always wanted a piece of you. "Almost to a fault," he admits. Linebacker Bud Dupree did, too. When Dupree saw his friend Shazier motionless on the turf against Cincinnati, one of the first thoughts to enter his mind was "sleeping somebody."

"Putting somebody to sleep," Dupree says. "One of my brothers got hurt? Now we need to hurt three of their brothers. So we're going to hit them as hard as we can."

That snarl on Dupree's lip, everyone's lip, was instilled long ago. They all remember hitting drills with fondness—the Oklahoma drill, even Bull in the Ring. That's the one that stripped football down to its raw, ruthless, inescapable core. As all-time Steelers badass Greg Lloyd explains, a youth coach placed you in a circle of teammates, secretly assigned those teammates a number and then shouted numbers aloud. Three! You were blasted in the back. Five! Just as you're stumbling to two feet, you're drilled from the side. Eight! Look out, a dude's in your face.

It was cruel. It was physically and mentally draining. It's justifiably controversial.

Point is, that first week of hitting drills each summer served as a boot camp that weeded out the weak. The result, for the survivors, was a vehement temperament that the sport demands.

To players like Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, the hitting drills he has grown accustomed to in training camp have helped instill a toughness he feels is necessary to play in the NFL.
To players like Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, the hitting drills he has grown accustomed to in training camp have helped instill a toughness he feels is necessary to play in the NFL.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

"Guys are going to get their fingers broken," Lloyd says. "You're going to get knees torn up. You're going to get banged around. That's what you're signing up for. If you don't want that, then guess what, you can go and play slow-pitch softball. You can play some crocheting. You can take up fishing. But if you want to be a NFL player—especially a defensive player—you have to be violent. You have to be a little crazy. All of that has to be mixed up in there.

"You have to have some screws loose to go in there and run up against a guy that outweighs you by almost 100 pounds and give him everything you've got."

Adds Wilcox, "It's in you or it's not."

Now the NFL expects these players to just biologically…change? Borderline impossible. And the physics of what the NFL is asking feels even more impossible. As these Steelers explain, they're coached to shoot your gun. That is, once you lock in a receiver, you pull your trigger. You accelerate.

From his locker, Dupree pretends to peer through the scope of a rifle.

"If I shoot a gun right now," he says, "and I'm aiming at that guy in the blue and somebody else walks by, it ain't going to stop. It's going to carry on."

Mitchell grew up shooting guns in Kentucky. Still does every offseason. Once a bullet's shot, he adds, there's no changing its path. Go ahead and replay the hit that cost him $23,152 two years ago. Andy Dalton throws a low ball, tight end Tyler Eifert is forced to dive horizontally, and Mitchell tags Eifert head to head. If Eifert stays upright, it's a clean hit to his midsection. But, in the sweet spot Goodell envisions, Mitchell must stop on a dime…at full speed…type in a new address on his mental GPS…change his path…all in a fraction of a second.

No wonder 50 players (and counting) blew up Mitchell's phone when he initially spoke out on the subject.

"The league doesn't even hear that side of the argument," Mitchell says. "I'm not a physicist. But after I already initiated these movements at 4.4 speed, how do you want me to re-adjust to a guy that is moving? Unless you have that Neo power in The Matrix, you ain't stopping it."

At these speeds, Wilcox contests, such a gray area cannot exist. Players are too big, too fast to magically shift their head this way or that way at the last millisecond.

According to the Steelers' Mike Mitchell, a number of defensive players have voiced their concerns to him about the difficult it is to alter their tackling techniques given the speed at which the game is now played.
According to the Steelers' Mike Mitchell, a number of defensive players have voiced their concerns to him about the difficult it is to alter their tackling techniques given the speed at which the game is now played.Al Bello/Getty Images

Part of Wilcox understands the NFL's burden. Every teenager taken off on a stretcher intensifies public pressure to make this game safer. Nobody here wants to headhunt. Nobody is lobbying for the return of kill shots from the 1970s. But studies have also shown that subconcussive hits adding up over time leads to brain damage, the metaphorical daily drags of a cigarette.

So is there a middle ground? Hands behind his head, Wilcox leans back and pauses.

"There's not. It's sad to say, but there's not."

As long as there's blocking and tackling, he may have a point. A study by Boston University cited research "that athletes at college, high school and youth levels can sustain anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand [subconcussive] head impacts during a single season of football."

One solution isn't exactly offense-friendly. Linebacker Arthur Moats predicts many players around the NFL will simply change the trajectory of their bullets and aim exclusively at players' legs. Knees. That way, they're in the clear if a player's elevation drops mid-throw. Wide receivers would hate this trend. Wilcox, initially a receiver at Georgia Southern, wanted defenders hitting him high 10 out of 10 times.

Moats can hear critics now calling players soft and chicken if they all decide to strike low. ACLs would tear weekly. He hopes it doesn't reach this point.

"But if I hit you in the chest or even the stomach, where it's legal," Moats says, "if it's too violent…"

He sighs.

For now, they're not overthinking. This is a defense that's forever symbolized the NFL. So, you can imagine how the heartbeat of this defense from the '90s feels.


GREG LLOYD IS DISGUSTED, and he knows his opinions might offend some people.

But the most feared linebacker of his era—give this haunting clip a gander (warning: NSFW language)—feels like he's watching the fall of an empire. He sees a once-great, once-addictive product dissolving into a pathetic shell of itself.

You're damn right he shot his gun as a tackler. Lloyd grew up watching the Steel Curtain, took every conversation with Mean Joe to heart, won five division titles and then paid it forward. And everything he helped build? Ashes. The era of violence is over, he says. The era of wearing down your opponent—making him quit—is over.

If a 5'8" slot receiver caught a pass over the middle and talked trash in his day, he wouldn't be talking for long.

"The next play they're pulling him off the field," Lloyd says, "onto the truck and he's never coming back."

Poor Don Beebe, all 5'11" and 185 pounds of him, wasn't even talking trash one Steelers-Bills game when Lloyd said players vowed to "lay his ass out" and did precisely that to the former Bills receiver. Lloyd loved yapping at opponents, telling future Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas it was his job to babysit him for three hours, to hand him water on the sideline. But if one of those little receivers running free in New England today was talking? He'd last two plays. He'd leave on an ambulance, Lloyd sneers. Which is why he gets a chuckle out of Seattle's alleged "Legion of Boom." Please. Lloyd claims he's never seen that group ever actually hit anybody at all.

Not that he watches much football. Lloyd can hardly stomach 15 minutes of any game before switching over to a hunting channel. He sees safeties throw a lazy shoulder at Todd Gurley. He sees quarterbacks flailing their arms after hits, asking for flags, getting those flags, and then he usually gets a headache. "It's gotten so sissified," he says.

Forget about Goodell needing to convince parents to let little Timmy play. Lloyd corrects me to say "Little Julie" will be playing soon.

Again and again, Lloyd repeats he played within the rules. Clean. But in his eyes, this is a completely different game.

"It's almost like our men who control this have become women-minded. Like there's a woman out there saying, 'He can't do that. He shouldn't be doing that.' That's where it's coming from. This is not a girl's game. This is a man's game. … By 2020, 2025 or 2030, the game's getting so soft, you might see the first female sign up for football. That's how soft it's getting. For us, it's 'Wow.' You can't even touch a guy.

"They'll never play it the way we played it. I don't think they'll ever go back that way."

OK, so the NFL prefers the 45-44 game. Offense sells. Quarterbacks are investments. He gets all that. But in going all-in on this business model, Lloyd also believes the NFL is inducing its own slow death. Ratings are down more than 15 percent the last two years. Each Sunday, social media captured an embarrassing amount of empty seats in stadiums. Maybe that has nothing to do with Sundays becoming a "What's a Catch?" sitcom. Maybe it has nothing to do with anyone kneeling during the anthem.

You might draw the conclusion that Lloyd is some out-of-touch Neanderthal from yesteryear. Still, maybe hidden within his barbaric rhetoric is a cold-blooded truth about the game.

Millions of fans likely share his disgust. Fans, he repeats passionately, gravitate to such a gladiator complex.

Former Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd finds it hard to watch the NFL today considering how "soft" he believes the league has become.
Former Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd finds it hard to watch the NFL today considering how "soft" he believes the league has become.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

"Everybody could not be in the NFL when I played," Lloyd says. "It's like the Marine Corps saying: Many are called but few are chosen."

Lloyd agrees humans were never meant to play football. He also agrees that concussions affect players later in life—he's living proof. Many days, Lloyd gets into his car, starts driving and totally forgets where he's going. In the mid-90s, trainers used smelling salts and asked how many fingers you saw [if you appeared wobbly]. A teammate, he says, would secretly tap you on the shoulder "1…2…3..." times to help, and you were back in the game.

He's in favor of a more structured concussion protocol. But big picture, this is a brutal game.

You will be "bloodied," he promises. Bones will be "cracked." Muscles "bruised."

"And if you don't want to do it," Lloyd says, "get your ticket, go up in the stands or get the DirecTV and watch the games. That's all I can tell you. Because it is supposed to be a violent game. There are supposed to be violent collisions going on out there. Now is the body supposed to take that? Absolutely not! That's why everybody likes it. That's why everybody likes the fact that a guy can take a hit like that and come back in the game.

"That's what make you gladiators, man."

Lloyd hopes players are still built to hit. Coaching under Andy Reid in Philadelphia after his playing days, he remembers shoulder pads barely popping during one 9-on-9 drill. He cussed them all out, told them their job is to beat the snot out of the man in front of them. Then, Pow! Pow! Pow! the drill reached a Blitzburgh level. As chaos ensued with other coaches yelling, Reid mumbled to him, "You started this, didn't you?"

The players loved it.

Lloyd compares today's NFL defensive player to an angry pit bull chained up outside a house. And now the NFL is tightening that chain more than ever. His advice? Be yourself. Be that kid who survived the war of attrition. If he played today, he'd tell Goodell that his job entitles him to pass rush, to tackle, to "knock somebody's block off," and if that's not allowed, to please put a flag on everyone instead.

Too bad it's not that easy.

The NFL won't morph into flag football (yet), lest it scares away fans who relish combat. Nor will the NFL own its obvious violence, lest it scares away parents. Instead, the league is content operating in this gray area with all of its collateral damage. If that sounds shortsighted to you, you're not alone. In 2014, billionaire Mark Cuban referred to the NFL's business model as a bubble that'll burst within 10 years. Indeed, the NFL may reach a tipping point at which it'll have to either emphatically embrace its physicality or shun it.

For now, the league will police secondaries like those cops hiding behind the bushes in rural one-street towns.

And these Steelers, pedal to the metal, have no plans on slowing down.


HE'S AT PEACE WITH the game's consequences. Mike Mitchell knows brain damage could affect him at 50, 60 years old. But Mitchell also acknowledges that that kid back in Florence, Kentucky, "wasn't going to be a chemist and invent anything."

Though Mike Mitchell understands football may leave him with long-lasting physical damage, he also believes he has changed his family's economic outlook for generations by playing football.
Though Mike Mitchell understands football may leave him with long-lasting physical damage, he also believes he has changed his family's economic outlook for generations by playing football.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

No, his body could earn his family millions. And it has. He has now retired both of his parents, paid for his brother's home and his sister's home, and his kids' futures are secured.

His voice picks up.

"I have changed my family's legacy forever," Mitchell says. "How can something that does all of that be bad? I didn't rob anyone for it. I just worked hard. Football's been nothing but a blessing. Let's not turn this into what the moms are trying to turn it into, this barbaric game played by thugs. It's not. It's played by loving, caring, intelligent people that are just passionate about their craft."

From J.J. Watt raising more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey victims to Raiders running back Jalen Richard vowing to give his hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, the third-most dangerous city in America, hope, this effect can be found everywhere. The week before this conversation, Mitchell brought underprivileged kids to a game. Kids who'd probably never visit an NFL stadium met Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell.

"The amount of lives that have been impacted for good by the game of football," Mitchell explains, "more than outweighs the bad.

"That's why you have to be a warrior! Let's not change this sport!"

That's Mitchell's concern. If that bubble bursts, he worries the immense power pro football wields bursts with it. Until then, the Steelers will play the only way they know how. "Business as usual," Mitchell promises. They can't—won't—shift down. Not with Rob Gronkowski stampeding down the seam, Fournette barreling through the A-gap and LeSean McCoy juking you onto a blooper reel.

Not when wind chills sink into the negatives and adrenaline is all that heats you, fuels you.

Bud Dupree has been fined three times this season for a total of $72,000. He doesn't agree with any of the penalties and says the league has referenced rules he never knew existed—"Code 119, Section 8, 85" jargon. So, no, he isn't changing a thing. He can't suddenly dull his thinking.

Maybe next August. Not in January.

"If you get a fine, f--k it," Dupree says. "Don't let it slow you down. Just be smart about it. Some things, you can't stop. … We just have to play physical, stay the course and just remember the one goal: Get to the Super Bowl."

Wilcox isn't forgetting his Dad's advice. It's why he's here today.

And Moats, one of the linebackers replacing Shazier, is optimistic the pendulum will swing back to the defense. If more ACLs are torn, he thinks the NFL will come around. For now, he says, the fines and flags are all a "knee-jerk reaction" to concussion data.

The data on CTE, of course, is chilling. Of 111 deceased NFL players' brains donated to a recent study, 110 had the disease

Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats thinks the rise in penalties because of on-field hits is a reaction to the wave of concussion data that has been released recently, a wave he hopes will die down.
Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats thinks the rise in penalties because of on-field hits is a reaction to the wave of concussion data that has been released recently, a wave he hopes will die down.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Many players, however, don't spend one minute worrying about this. Moats, echoing others, is even skeptical.

"Until we get all the information on it, shoot, you could have CTE!" he says. "My wife could have CTE! Anyone who's ever had a concussion, anyone who's ever been in a car crash, anyone who's ever bumped their head can have CTE.

"Think about this. I was at the Children's Hospital yesterday where a teenager had a tumor in his head. Do you think he's caring about CTE? Or, 'Maybe I shouldn't have played that game or not?' No, he's saying, 'I wish I would've done more.' That's what it comes down to. You can't live your life worrying about, 'Man, what if this' and, 'Man, what if that?'"

So the NFL has a problem. Neither side of the concussion debate is necessarily wrong.

Read the groundbreaking League of Denial, watch the gripping documentary "Requiem for a Running Back" or sit down for dinner with Chris Borland (a 49ers linebacker who retired in 2015 at the age of 24) and it's obvious the NFL suppressed a major problem for decades. It's shameful how the league hid the effects of concussions. Brain damage changes you later in life: how you think, how you interact, your temper, even leading some to the point of suicide.

As Wilcox puts it, life is far more important than a game, and no parent wants to see his or her son paralyzed in a hospital or, worse, deceased. And at least the NFL is doing…something. That wasn't the case in Lloyd's day. Adding an independent neurologist to the sideline was gravely needed. Getting back onto the field isn't as easy as three taps on a shoulder. The fact that pros are held out a week or two helps. The fact that Heads Up Football, a national program for youth coaches that addresses safety issues, exists helps.

For all the players longing for collisions, there are also guys like Kevin Kolbwho drifted into the other lane while driving and nearly killed himself after a fourth concussion. Or Packers receiver Davante Adams, who wants the league to take even more precautions to protect wide receivers.

The league no longer glorifies hits that leave players unconscious. It punishes them.

And yet even players who retired early, like Borland, relished the primitive nature of the sport. Even Borland said that to "insinuate an inherently dangerous activity can be done safely is dishonest." Goodell will publicly assure the country the game is safer despite the ridiculous number of season-ending injuries in 2017. Flags and fines didn't prevent star after star from ending up on IR.

Football is violent and players wish the league would simply own that truth.

So why not just have players sign waivers? That'd likely loosen up officiating and return football to the football they crave.

"I thought that was what we were doing when we signed up for a contact sport," Mitchell says. "But apparently, that's not the case."

Sitting at his locker, Mitchell gets sentimental. His voice slows to a crawl as he lists a slew of players and coaches he has forged lifelong bonds with. It's never been the bone-rattling hits he cherished most these nine pro seasons—it's these relationships. It's the fact that football has been such an unrelenting force of good for his family, for society.

He fears this impact is being threatened.

So he spoke up.

"I was never attacking the National Football League," Mitchell says. "I want clarity. I want understanding. I want consistency."

For the Steelers, the beat goes on. They'll try to avoid head-to-head hits while also trying to make you hurt. Menacing play could be the difference as they attempt to win the AFC. One Greg Lloyd-sized hit could catapult them to the Super Bowl. It's still a contact sport, for now. So to all fans of all teams, Mitchell poses one last question: What do you want the strong safety of your favorite team to do?

"If all those people tell me to give up a touchdown, then listen, don't be tweeting me after the game," he says. "Don't be sliding in my mentions. If that's the consensus of what the league and the fans want to see, y'all want to see us give it up, then we'll give it up. I'll start to give it up.

"But until somebody tells me that, I'm going to play by the rules of football."

That could mean a seventh Super Bowl trophy for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But that could also mean one flag, one fine and one headache that'd last an entire offseason.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.