Taken separately, each of those events may have just been shrugged off, and people may have said to themselves, "that's unfortunate, but that's football." But all three of those events happened within roughly 24 hours over this past weekend. Predictably, that perfect storm of pain means that player safety is the biggest headline in football this week.
Now everyone is trying to come up with ways to make the game safer, all the while ignoring the simple fact that football is inherently an unsafe game. Is football bad for your brain? Yes! It's also bad for your knees. It's bad for your feet. And your back. And your hips. And your shoulders. And just about any other body part you can think of. I don't think that's a scientific revelation.
I speak from some experience here, having suffered at least six concussions myself. Three playing soccer, two playing football, and one suffered from a fall when I was three years old. And those are just the concussions I can remember; the real number might be closer to seven or eight. It might explain why I now can't read while riding in a moving car without getting a splitting headache. I hope it explains why I picked Green Bay and San Diego to meet in the Super Bowl this year.
Can more be done to protect football players on the field? Technically, yes. But it's reaching the point where I don't know how you protect the players without changing the very basics of the way the game is played. Short of making it two-hand touch, I'm not sure what the answer is.
The equipment isn't the problem. Helmets are safer. Pads are more effective. Jerseys are designed to do a better job of keeping bodies cooler. Old-school artificial turf laid over concrete is all but completely gone. Technology has helped the game become safer from that perspective.
The rules of the game have been tweaked and altered with safety in mind for decades. Dick "Night Train" Lane couldn't play today's game because the clothesline tackle is now illegal. Deacon Jones made the headslap famous (or infamous, depending on which side of the ball you were on), but that move is a thing of the past. Chop blocks and leg whips (or, as Bobb McKittrick's old 49er linemen called them, cross-body blocks) have long been no-nos.
The equipment is safer. The rules are safer. The players aren't. And therein lies the problem.
Today's players, on all levels of football, are bigger, stronger, and above all, faster than ever before. That 250-pound lineman from the 1960s might actually be a quarterback today. That 300-pound kid who can run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds simply did not exist back in 1980. He does now.
If you ever get the chance to be on the sidelines for a major college or NFL game, do it. Once you experience just how fast and how furious this game is played at its highest levels, it gives you an entirely different perspective on just how physical this game is. The players are so fast, and the collisions are so intense.
When you have increasingly more massive objects colliding with each other at increasingly higher speeds, what do you get? I'm not Isaac Newton (as my grades from that physics class I took freshman year proved), but you're going to get more violent collisions. More often, those collisions will be more violent than the human body can withstand, no matter how big, strong, or fast it is.
The physical state of these players is one part of the problem. Their mental state and the way they are taught to play the game is another. After knocking Cleveland's Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaqoui out of the game with concussions on Sunday, Steelers LB James Harrison said, "You don't want to see anyone get injured. I want to hurt people.…I don't want to see anybody injured, and I don't want to injure anybody. But I'm not opposed to hurting anybody. There's a difference between being hurt and being injured. An injury will keep you out. You get hurt, you can shake it off and come back the next series or the next game."
Of course, many people focused on the "I want to hurt people" portion of that quote and became outraged. But here's the thing…he's absolutely right. His job, as a defensive player, is to stop the opposing team from advancing the football, and whenever possible, take the football away. The most effective way to achieve that objective is to inflict pain. Part of me hates to put this in such simple terms, but against the Browns, Harrison did his job.
Still, many defensive players are placed in tough situations. This game moves so fast, and a defensive player has to make so many split-second decisions, that he will make mistakes. He may not be aiming for the ballcarrier's helmet, but at the very last instant, the ballcarrier may turn a certain way that suddenly makes a helmet-to-helmet collision unavoidable. Whose fault is that? I mean, what else was Dunta Robinson supposed to do? Let DeSean Jackson catch the ball and speed right by him? How else was he supposed to play that?
Most defensive players are taught one simple lesson: when in doubt, hit. That's football. Now, are there clean ways to enforce that lesson? Yes. But so much of what makes a "clean" or a "dirty" hit is so subjective, it adds an entirely different layer to enforcing the rules that are supposed to make the game safer. After all, what seems so obvious in slow-motion replays is nowhere near as clear at regular speed.
Cribbs, Massaquoi, Jackson, and Robinson are all lucky in the grand scheme of things. They got up. Eric LeGrand at Rutgers did not. And his is an extreme example of what happens in a rough, violent, and unsafe game.
There was a time in this country when college football was so violent that it was on the verge of being completely outlawed. It took massive fundamental changes to how the game is played to prevent that from happening. I don't know if things are going to come to a head like that again, but as I see these bigger, stronger, faster players colliding with more and more violence, I begin to wonder whether we're going to be watching an entirely different kind of football thirty years from now.
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RANDOM PAC-9 THOUGHTS
They still have a long way to go before becoming truly competitive, but it appears Washington State is taking steps towards at least becoming respectable. It may not show in the stats, mostly because their offensive line is brutal, but you can tell that the Cougars are still responding to QB Jeff Tuel…
With Nick Foles out of the picture for the foreseeable picture, the torch is passed back to Matt Scott. The junior QB looked good when he had time to throw. But when the Cougars blitzed him, he struggled both in recognition and evasion. Something to keep in mind for November 6…
I could not believe the final score of the cal-U$C score when I saw it. I seriously thought it was a typo and called my buddy Ray to make sure it was real. Then I watched the replay later. Wow…
Once again, in the face of adversity, cal folds like a New York slice. That has to be a very troubling trend for the Old Blues…
The most amazing thing about Jacquizz Rodgers is watching him bowl through tacklers. He's small, but he doesn't just bounce off of guys. If he takes you on, there's a decent chance you'll be on the ground and he'll still be running…
If you can't hold the Pac-12 championship game in either the Rose Bowl or the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, why not the Oakland Coliseum? I'm serious. The Bay Area is centrally located to the rest of the conference (there has to be a reason why the league offices are in Walnut Creek, right?), it's obviously a major media market, and it's a desirable place for fans to visit. Plus, if Stanford and cal get jobbed in the new division alignment, it would be nice for the conference to throw the Bay Area a bone…
Not a Pac-9 thought, but… yes, they poleaxed Iowa State and Florida State. And yes, they knocked off Texas. But they struggled to beat Utah State. They barely beat Air Force. Quite frankly, they needed to get lucky at Cincinnati. Add it all up, and that's good enough to be called the best team in the country right now. At least by the computers, anyway…
Not a Pac-9 thought, but… who is your Heisman frontrunner right now? Because after this past weekend of upsets and subpar performances, I honestly have no idea…
Not a Pac-9 thought, but… however, along those lines, how come more people don't talk about TCU QB Andy Dalton for some of the major awards? He's not flashy, he doesn't compile monster stats, and he's not a physical specimen, but all he does is move the chains and win games. He is probably the best college quarterback that no one is talking about…
Not a Pac-9 thought, but… if you find yourself in Syracuse, be sure to head to Dinosaur Barbecue. Try the BBS (brisket sandwich with bacon and swiss). You will not be disappointed. Even when the wait for a table is two hours…
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CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX
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UCLA @ Oregon. Honestly, unless Darron Thomas's shoulder is more banged up than we think it is, I see no reason to pick UCLA here. Not against that offense, and certainly not in that stadium. I like Oregon by 23.
Arizona State @ cal. Once again, the Bears are circling. Arizona State may have them just where they want them. I like Arizona State by 8.
Washington @ Arizona. I don't know about this one. I don't think Jake Locker is all that. But somehow I think he and the Huskies may be enough. Besides, Arizona has never been particularly fearsome at home. I like Washington by 4.
Last week: 2-1 (straight-up), 3-0 (ATS).
This year: 9-4 (straight-up), 7-6 (ATS).
Last year: 25-11 (straight-up), 19-16-1 (ATS).
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Troy Clardy hosts the Stanford Daily Update, airing every weekday at 7:00pm on Cardinal Sports Network flagship radio station XTRA Sports 860 in San Francisco, and available in podcast form at gostanford.com. If you're in Pittsburgh, you can also hear him weekends on 93.7 The Fan.
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