Joe Ferguson would like playing in today's NFL.
Being traded from the Bills to the Lions in early 1985 gave Ferguson a new lease on his football career.
"It's kind of refreshing and exciting to go to a new place," the former NFL quarterback said at training camp that season. "It's kind of brought a new life and more enthusiasm than I had before."
In making his cheery statements to the media, Ferguson failed to take into consideration his team's early-December tilt against the Chicago Bears. Had he known what would befall him, he probably wouldn't have been as excited about his trade to the Motor City.
A few months later, in the first quarter of that Bears-Lions game, Ferguson lined up under center for a first-down play. As he dropped back to pass, defensive tackle William Perry shucked his blocker and barreled straight toward the quarterback. Ferguson eluded the defender and rolled out to his left. He looked downfield and, being right-handed, exposed his body to make a throw.
At the same time, linebacker Wilber Marshall was closing in on him like a freight train. To his credit – or discredit – Ferguson didn't flinch. He stood strong and let it fly.
At the moment the ball was released, Marshall, who was running full bore, ducked his head and propelled his body into the quarterback. His helmet hit Ferguson's, causing the passer to immediately go limp in mid-air. Marshall then finished the hit by propelling the seemingly lifeless body to the ground – the back of Ferguson's head was the first thing to touch the turf.
Ferguson was knocked out cold and laid on the field for several minutes, most likely trying to remember what his name was.
Years later, Marshall's teammate, defensive lineman Dan Hampton, remembered the hit.
"I can still see it in my mind in slow motion," he said. "I was thinking, This can't be good."
Many a football fanatic would be hard-pressed to point out a more vicious single hit in the annals of the pro game. To this day, people still speak of it.
Marshall made a career out of laying people out, and, when one goes back to the film, the majority of those hits were made with him leaving his feet and leading with the crown of his head.
In the current-day NFL, he would most likely be the most-fined player in the league.
What he did to Ferguson on that mid-80s December day would not only have elicited a flag on the field in today's game, but it would have also warranted a fine and a subsequent suspension.
After Week 6 of this season, commissioner Roger Goodell had finally had enough and put his foot down regarding "head hunting" – defenders deliberately hurting players by hitting them above the shoulders.
There were four instances in that week's slate of games that forced Goodell into taking action. The hits were brutal to watch, and each player that was hit – and even one of the hitters – was concussed. As a result, the commissioner levied fines to James Harrison ($75,000) of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dunta Robinson ($50,000) of the Atlanta Falcons and Brandon Meriweather ($50,000) of the New England Patriots.
As of today, players can be suspended for those types of hits.
Harrison was especially incensed, even going so far as to threaten retirement.
Yet these fines and rule changes are being enforced for the health and safety of the players. Yes, each player knows the risks, but can't these risks be mitigated? When did possibly destroying a person's quality of life become part of the game? Since when is a "W" more important than anything else?
Not surprisingly, the outcries from armchair quarterbacks, like FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, were the most virulent.
And, obviously, Marshall disagrees with the way potential career-ending hits are currently being handled.
"They've put the skirt on the quarterback, big time," he said.
Interesting, coming from a man who can now barely function due to injuries he suffered while playing.
"This game will kill you," he said. "I've got to have my knees replaced and both shoulders. I can't raise my arms over my shoulders. I've got no cartilage because they've been dislocated so often. I've had four knee surgeries. It's bone on bone. I fractured both ankles. I've got nerve impairment in my wrists and hands. My spine is compressed, and I've got bulging discs. The pain runs all the way down my leg."
Yet such is the way for a former NFL player. The game is a brutal contact sport and has been that way since its inception more than 100 years ago. Players are now paid millions in part because of the toll it takes on their bodies. One only hopes they aren't forced to put all of the money from those egregious paychecks toward future surgeries, but it's a risk they willingly take.
If a guy like Marshall, one that can now hardly move without pain, is still implying that today's league is a sissy league, then obviously some attitudes will never change.
But if this had been the case all along, if technology and science had revealed to us 50 years ago the damage football inflicts to players' bodies, would Chicago history exist as we know it today?
Let's consider for a moment that the current-day rules had been in place in 1960. What would be different?
First off, the response to anyone mentioning the name Dick Butkus would immediately be: "Who?"
Known as the nastiest player to ever don a Bears uniform, Butkus may not have made enough money to justify the fines his style of play would have brought forth. When reliving his playing days through NFL Films, one views play after play of devastating hits – each of which would have been fined, and many of which might have led to suspension.
To this day, opposing players and teammates espouse his ferociousness and downright disregard for the body, family or life of the opposing players.
Said former Broncos, Giants and Falcons coach Dan Reeves: "He tried to hurt you. As soon as you had that football, you were the enemy."
Said former Saints and 49ers receiver Danny Abramowicz: "Dick was not satisfied with just an ordinary tackle. He had to hit you, pick you up, drive you and grind you into the ground."
Said former Rams, Chargers and Redskins defensive end Deacon Jones: "Every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital."
Does this sound like a player that could thrive with Goodell in charge?
More likely, he would have been the poster boy for everything wrong with the sport and the subject of a litany of Rick Reilly columns. He would probably have been suspended for as many games as he played and might now be living in a van down by the river, as all of his paychecks would have gone toward fines. Odds are, he would have been kicked out of the league.
It is amazing to consider that arguably the greatest linebacker of all time would have been handcuffed by the rules.
What's even more amazing to consider is the greatest defense of all time may have never even existed.
Buddy Ryan said often of his 46 defense that the goal was to beat the quarterback into submission. He would constantly blitz up to eight players, looking to disrupt the passing game by putting pressure on the signal caller. With players like Marshall, Hampton, Otis Wilson, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary and Steve McMichael all looking to take someone's head off on each and every play, opposing QBs consistently walked off the field looking like Marvis Frazier after his bout with Mike Tyson.
Yet again, when looking at the film of those Monsters of the Midway, many of those hits were of the helmet-to-helmet variety. Others included blows to the head, driving the passer to the ground or whipping the him down head first – all penalties in today's NFL.
So the question has to be asked: Would the 46, in its mid-80s incarnation, even have survived under Goodell?
That 1985 Bears team, which every Grabowski still clings to like his "woobie," probably would not have even been allowed to play in the fashion it did, and it most likely would not have won a championship.
Same goes for the Steelers defenses of the ‘70s, the 1972 Dolphins, the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Buccaneers.
Although, Bill Walsh's 49ers, they would have been just fine.
At what point will the game not resemble the one that generations of fans have grown up adoring? At what point will quarterbacks be off limits, where the game will resemble fútbol more than football?
At what point will it become unwatchable?
The age-old saying "defense wins championships" may not be applicable in 20 years, at a time when the scores will most likely resemble arena-league tallies. It's shocking to think about what it might become, but it's even more shocking to consider what it might have been.
Chicago fans latch on to their sports heroes like those in no other city. We adore our hard-nosed, blue-collar players as if they were family. We revel in the destruction our teams create on the field, and we feel true Bears football is defined by how well the defense played, not how many points the offense scored.
It's frightening to consider that future generations may not be allowed to feel the same way.
To get your own copy of the January issue of Bear Report, which features this story and so much more, Click Here.
Jeremy Stoltz is editor-in-chief of the Business Ledger, the business resource for suburban Chicago. He is a frequent contributor to both Bear Report and BearReport.com.
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