by Matthew Thompson
In a knee-jerk reaction to an admittedly terrible weekend of injuries to receivers, the National Football over-reacted and decided to enforce rules meant to protect defenseless players with harsher penalties to get the situation under control. The problem with this type of heavy-handed reaction is that there was no situation. Plays where linebackers close the gap between themselves and wide receivers on quick slants happen numerous times in every single game of professional football. Most of the time they end with a hard tackle and a few congratulatory chest bumps. That weekend happened to be the one time when instead of the players hopping up after a technically sound, albeit violent collision, the players stayed down. The National Football League, who promoted these defensive players as warriors and heroes, is know condemning them for doing the very things that they have been taught, coached, and praised for doing. They sent out a tape to each franchise that showed what they believed to be legal and illegal hits. At first glance, it seemed like the best, most responsible move for the league office. At further inspection, including actually watching the tape, it proved to be one more step towards destroying America’s favorite sport.
The 5 minute video of various legal and illegal tackles could have confused the NFL players more than it helped them. The first problem with the tape sent by the league office is that there is only one discernible difference between the legal hits and the illegal ones, their location. The legal tackles on the video showed defenders hitting wide receivers near their midsection and below helmet level. In almost every shot of an illegal tackle, the defender spotted the closing defender a split second before contact, and ducked to avoid the collision, causing a helmet to helmet collision. This means that the legality of a hit is somewhat contingent on how the offensive player reacts. This is unfair to defenses. Defenders are now responsible for smashing into another player head, when they were not necessarily trying to collide with their helmets. Punishing players for hitting defenseless wide receivers high could also unintentionally cause more knee injuries, which can be devastating to other players’ careers. The discrepancies between the definitions of legal and illegal tackles and unforeseen consequences necessitate that the NFL reconsider their stance on hard hits in the league.
Even if the legal hits were well-defined by the league officials and easily performed by the defenders, the rules are still unequally biased towards NFL offenses. There are enough rules protecting offensive players currently. If you run into a quarterback after he releases the football, then “roughing the passer” is promptly called. If you touch a wide receiver after he is 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, then “pass interference” is the penalty. Higher scoring affairs are more attractive to the general public, so understandably, defenses have to be held in check. But, the enforcement of this “defenseless” rule is to protect players, so who is protecting the defensive players? When a 300+ lb. guard is pulling down the line, who helps the “defenseless” linebackers? Why is the league only protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers? Because, they are the faces that the public sees on television and are more marketable, so they are more valuable. In the same week, that the tape was released a kicker got leveled on a helmet to helmet hit. There was no penalty called. The rule is biased against defensive players and only protects the marketable players of the NFL.
Though defining legal and illegal hits, plus allowing NFL offenses more advantages than the defenses are both problematic, the biggest complication with the NFL’s strict enforcement is the cumulative effect on the game itself. During the week that followed the weekend of injuries, the offensive numbers were significantly higher. Passes where defenders would have jarred the football from wide receivers were caught with out contact. Defensive football is played on instinct and reflexive reactions. Forcing defensive players to think about hitting in one specific area slows down those reactions. These plays seen in that week are the antitheses of what football has always represented. Purists watch football for the militaristic execution of each offensive and defensive set. They perceive the game similarly to attending a great chess match, watching the coaches put all the pieces in the proper place to foil the moves of their opponent. But, most people that watch football do not watch it with that much intent or with an intimate understanding of the more minute details that are unfolding in front of them. The common person does not watch football to see long touchdowns or understand intricate formations. They watch it to see the big hit. They want to see a shattering collision between two people and find out who came out on top. The common man is simple and wants only to be entertained. The league changes are transforming what was once a game for only the bravest, most rugged men, into a glorified track meet. What football player is “defenseless?” A defenseless football player should pick another sport.
The concern that the league expressed over one of the more physical weekends that the football has seen in the last 40 years is well-deserved. The National Football League has to protect their most visible and most marketable assets, quarterbacks and wide receivers. But, they way they handled this situation was a bit ill-conceived. They did a poor job of differentiating between illegal and legal hits, they totally disregarded the adverse prejudice that their punishments show against defenses, and they consequently are re-writing the way that the game of football should be played. This rule is an admonishment to the spirit of football and should be rescinded immediately.