By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Tune into Monday Night Football not too terribly long ago, and at halftime you would see a segment entitled “Jacked Up!” As five players got their bells rung on stunningly violent hits, many of which involved helmet-to-helmet contact or forearm shots to the head as players collided at full speed, analysts Tom Jackson and Chris Berman would crow, “He got … JACKED UP!”
Go back to YouTube and watch a few of those clips. Better yet, turn those videos over to today’s NFL powers-that-be who issue fines. Nearly all those hits that received promotion and praise less than 10 years ago would be illegal today.
Players — the guys the league is trying to protect — are taking note of how conservative today’s calls are.
“Football’s a violent game,” Lions’ center Dominic Raiola said. “I don’t think you can ever make hitting somebody soft. It’s just ridiculous.”
The game is still very physical, of course, but several tenured veterans agree that football could be described as softer than it was when they entered the game.
It is safe to say football does not look the way it used to. The league has changed some of the rules, and the culture of the game is changing with it.
Those big, crushing hits featured on “Jacked Up!” – the ones that would be illegal today – used to be integral to the identity of football.
“It was our slam dunk for the NFL,” Detroit wide receiver Nate Burleson said. “You watch NBA games, and it’s like once you see a guy on the fast break, you erupt. Whether you’re sitting in the stands or you’re sitting at home, you jump up out of your seat. Same thing in the NFL game – as soon as you see that big hit, it’s just as powerful of a moment as scoring a touchdown in football.
“Occasionally you still get it,” Burleson added. “It’s just not as often, and even when you do get a clean big hit, you still get people complaining.”
The changes stem, of course, from increased awareness of the effects of concussions. For years, the league denied connections between concussions and long-term effects on the brain. As more and more research emerged, however, the link became stronger – so strong, in fact, that before the start of the 2013 season the NFL settled a concussions lawsuit with more than 4,500 former players for $765 million.
Whether the motivation is benevolent or purely financial, the NFL seems determined to cut down on the kind of hits most likely to produce brain damage. Sometimes, though, the new rules seem to go even further.
As fines get doled out week after week, many players question the validity of those punishments. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has a history of bad behavior, recently got slapped with a $31,500 fine after a hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.
The NFL featured the hit on its series “How a Hit Becomes a Fine.” The clip shows Suh wrapping up the quarterback as he puts his helmet in the middle of Weeden’s chest. It appears to be a textbook hit – a brutal one, sure, but a clean one nonetheless.
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Suh was fined because he made contact with the forehead hairline. Article 6 of the 2013 NFL rulebook’s section on unnecessary roughness contains a clause that prohibits “using any part of a player’s helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily.”
Told the NFL was considering fining Suh for the hit, Raiola called the idea ridiculous.
“I saw the play on the sideline,” Raiola added. “It’s not on purpose. It’s ridiculous … It was a football play to me, but I guess maybe my view of football now is different from the way football’s viewed now. I really don’t know what they’re looking at.”
Perhaps the easy answer is that those who review potential illegal plays are looking at more in general.
“You really can’t get away with anything anymore,” Raiola said. “The fines are increased a lot. You can go back, look up some of my old fines. I was getting fined for leg whips and chop blocks. Now you’re getting fined for hitting somebody too hard or defenseless – back then you could hit defenseless guys.”
“It’s crazy to say, but you’ve got to adjust the way you play football,” Raiola added. “It’s just how the game is evolving.”
Under the old rules, Burleson, who came into the league in 2003, definitely understood the open season mentality on players who lost track of who was around them.
“I remember going across the middle my rookie year and thinking, ‘I’d better keep my head on a swivel because anybody can come and knock me off,’” Burleson said. “Nowadays, you can pretty much run around as much as you want, and a guy can’t put his hands on you past five yards.”
Wide receivers definitely lived in more jeopardy 10 years ago, but Burleson said he did not necessarily mind. He would complain about pass interference or if a defender took his knees out, but he never had a problem with a big hit. He would congratulate the guy.
“I’m OK with all that,” Burleson said. “I like that kind of big-hit, big-bang type football game. That’s what you wake up for. You’re supposed to be sore on Monday and Tuesday. You’re supposed to feel like you played 60 minutes of a real-deal football game. This game isn’t for the weak-minded or the weak physically. This is for strong individuals. That’s why we’re at this level.”
Suh has not been the only player fined this season. Many players have been punished, and many have complained about it, including Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who this weekend tweeted, “Thanks To @NFL For The Fine For Playing Football.”
The definition of what constitutes a defenseless play has been expanded. Thigh pads and knee pads are required. Running backs cannot make contact with the crown of their helmet. In March the new regulations generated response across the league.
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte tweeted his protest and even posted a video on YouTube to express his thoughts.
“I understand trying to keep the game safe,” Forte begins, “but all these rule changes is becoming an issue. I’m all for trying to keep the game safe, but I think it’s messing up the game. Every rule is contradicting what offense does and what defense does.”
Some rule changes in past years simply favor offense more than promote safety. How Detroit cornerback Rashean Mathis used to be able to cover wide receivers is much different from the way he does it now.
“If a guy jumped for the ball, you could hit him,” Mathis said. “That’s how we played football. If you’re outstretched for the ball, if you’re going to put yourself out there, I don’t know where the ball is, so I have the right to go through you. I don’t know if you’re coming down with the ball or not. And that’s how it was played when I first entered the league. Now you kind of have to second-guess yourself, and it’s hard to play football that way, when you’re second-guessing at a speed that we’re playing, it is hard.”
Back in the day, defensive backs could punish wide receivers that left themselves open. Burleson remembers the wilder style of play well. He also remembers the reaction to it – or more accurately, the lack of reaction.
“If a guy wanted to leave his feet, hit you helmet-to-helmet, he did it, and as a receiver I would get up and go to the next play, even if I was a little shaken up, even if I had a brief concussion for a quick second,” Burleson said. “It wasn’t something that you frowned upon. Nowadays it’s a lot different. Immediately the crowd erupts, the opposing team’s coach throws his hands up, and he’s yelling at the ref for a flag. All that stuff didn’t happen 10 years ago. There wasn’t that response.”
Now, of course, there is a significant response, and big, devastating hits are fewer and farther between.
In his first season with Detroit, longtime kicker David Akers still believes the NFL is a terrific product but says that too many rule changes could eventually be harmful. He does not see that happening now, though.
“Sometimes you go to the golden goose and change it too many times and all of a sudden you don’t have that great of a product anymore,” Akers said. “We still have a fantastic product that the world really enjoys to watch. I think ultimately if you get too crazy with it, you lose that product, but I think still, today, it’s a great product, and obviously they’re showing that with the fan support and how many people are watching each night.”
Indeed, 24 of the 25 most watched shows in the fall of 2012 were NFL football games, according to a December article in the Los Angeles Times. The only other show to crack the list was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The question remains how much longer that will continue if the NFL continues to try to tone down the game’s trademark physicality.
The consensus seems to be that it will not deter fans at all.
“People would rather see touchdowns and receivers catching the ball,” Burleson said. “They want to see a fast-break football team, and big hits kind of negate that and stop that. People are fine with it because if you take away the big hits, you’re going to get more highlights.”