NEW YORK — Players ranted about the NFL’s crackdown on illegal hits last season. Some even questioned if the league was heading toward touch football.
Most vocal were defensive players who wondered if everything they’d learned about tackling was being negated by the emphasis on player safety.
One thing they should remember about 2010 is that nobody was suspended for a flagrant foul. They can’t count on such leniency this year.
“Player safety is a priority and we will not relent on it,” says NFL executive vice president for football operations Ray Anderson, the league’s chief disciplinarian. “Let me make it very clear, particularly in regard to repeat offenders, that egregious acts will be subject to suspension. We will not feel the need to hesitate in this regard.”
Last October, after an especially gruesome weekend in which Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, New England safety Brandon Meriweather and Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson were fined a total of $175,000 (subsequently reduced) for illegal hits, the NFL threatened suspensions. While the number of fines and their amounts were increased throughout the rest of the 2010 season, no suspensio ns were meted out.
“Last year, particularly after we announced we’d be enforcing existing rules more vigorously in regard to these hits,” Anderson says, “there was a hesitation, frankly, even in cases of repeat offenders. Suspensions were permissible, but there was not emphatic advance notice … so we determined to hold back on suspensions.
“That hurdle has been eliminated.”
Each case will be examined separately, and Anderson makes it clear a first-time offender — or even someone who had a previous offense two years ago “and has been clean since” — will get different consideration than someone who has been fined frequently for illegal hits. Unless, of course, that first-time offense is so flagrant that it warrants the strongest punishment.
Anderson, assistant Merton Hanks, the former 49ers safety, and their staff go over every play following each weekend. Director of officiating Carl Johnson and his staff also are consulted. When it’s determined that a fine or suspension is necessary, Anderson says the player and team will be notified as quickly as possible.
The player can appeal to former NFL coaches Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are paid by the league and the NFL Players Association to handle those cases. Their appeal must be heard by the second Tuesday following notification of the discipline.
Commissioner Roger Goodell can become involved in the process at any time.
The league uses the last two seasons as criteria to determine repeat offenders.
“We’re not trying to bang guys, but we will hold them accountable and they have to be playing by the rules,” Anderson says. “It’s like any part of life where you break the law.”
In its schedule of fines, the NFL warns it players to “pay special attention to the league’s increased emphasis on enforcing rules to protect against illegal hits to defenseless players. These are dangerous and may cause long-term damage. … Clubs have emphasized that when circumstances warrant, suspension (even for first-time offenders) is appropriate discipline.”
Breaking specific NFL rules carries predetermined fines. In the player safety area, first-time offenders will be docked anywhere from $7,500 to $20,000 depending on the foul. The heaviest fines are $20,000 for spearing, impermissible use of the helmet (including launching at an opponent), hits on defenseless players and blindside blocks.
For repeat violators, the fines increase from $15,000 to $40,000 for the worst violations.
All of those are minimums, as Harrison, Meriweather and Robinson learned last year.
There also are specific fines for fighting, which could fall under the player safety category: $25,000 for first-timers, $50,000 for repeaters.
Defensive players have complained loudly that they are being shackled. Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who was fined $12,500 last season for a hit on Tom Brady, argues “you can’t avoid big hits, they are a part of football.”
And Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, when notified he was being docked $20,000 for a preseason hit on Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, responded on Twitter with “$20,000REALLY???” followed by many exclamation points and concluding with the hash tags for “NFL” and “BIGFAIL.”
Anderson says the league’s determination to eliminate flagrant hits should not be underestimated. He points to offseason rules changes designed to enhance player safety.
Those include expanding the definition of a defenseless receiver. Now, until that receiver has two feet on the ground and has a chance to protect himself or become a runner, he is considered defenseless and can’t be hit in the head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder.
Players no longer can leave their feet and launch themselves into a defenseless opponent, either.
“We have seen more of this on the college level,” Johnson says of launching. “It’s creeping into college football and high school players watch that and watch our games, and it trickles down. We know we’re the model and they will emulate us. So we have a responsibility to clean up the rules and make the game more safe.
“We need to make a unified effort to take it out of the game.”
The most publicized new safety measure will come on kickoffs. Teams now kick off from their 35 instead of the 30, and that has resulted in a spike in touchbacks in the preseason. The competition committee felt kickoff returns and coverages had become too dangerous, and in recent years the league decreased players allowed in the blocking wedge from four to three to two. This year, it also has restricted to 5 yards the run-up allowed for players covering kickoffs, except for the kicker.
Critics say one of football’s most exciting plays is being eliminated; through the first two weekends of preseason games, 40 percent of kickoffs wound up as touchbacks, double the number from a year ago.
Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs, the league’s career leader with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, is livid about the rule change.
“I don’t see (injury) stats behind it, and that’s what the issue was,” Cribbs says. “There’s no stats to back it up. Their intentions are good, but the stats aren’t there to back up the reasoning.”
Naturally, Anderson, Johnson and their colleagues disagree.
“Minimizing the returns reduces the exposure to injuries,” Johnson says. “The kickoff is a play that can be very dangerous; the data prove it. The collisions from a sprint are a recipe for injuries.”
But the NFL is not banning the play entirely.
“We are trying to protect the hitter and the hittee, if you will,” Anderson says, recalling career-ending injuries to Buffalo’s Kevin Everett in 2007 and Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand last year. “With head and leg injuries, we’ve seen more on that play percentage-wise. It’s significantly the most dangerous play.”