Players react to fines, new emphasis

The NFL says it has player safety in mind when it comes to fining and suspending players for helmet-to-helmet hits, but many players don't agree with the league fining three players a total of $175,000. Even some unlikely sources voiced their skepticism that the league is getting soft.

Anyone who had a chance to watch any of the NFL highlight shows since Sunday can attest that it was one of the darker chapters in the recent history of the NFL. In the span of one afternoon, four players – DeSean Jackson of the Eagles, Baltimore's Todd Heap, and Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi – were all knocked down and, in some cases, knocked out by vicious helmet-to-helmet hits. It was brutal, high-speed carnage to witness and, with the growing number of concussion-inducing hits, the NFL decided to take swift action.

On Monday, the three offending players – Atlanta's Dunta Robinson, New England's Brandon Meriweather and James Harrison of the Steelers – were handed hefty fines of $50,000 for Robinson and Merriweather and $75,000 for Harrison, who had two big shots.

In a quick and decisive move, the NFL announced that it will take swift punitive action against offending players who launch themselves like a missile and hit another player, whether defenseless or not, with a helmet-to-helmet hit. Part of the announcement stated that even first-time offenders will be subject to substantial fines or suspension.

Commissioner Roger Goodell made the feelings of the league clear Tuesday when he sent the following statement to the 32 NFL teams:

"One of our most important priorities is protecting our players from needless injury," Goodell said. "In recent years, we have emphasized minimizing contact to the head and neck, especially where a defenseless player is involved. It is clear to me that further action is required to emphasize the importance of teaching safe and controlled techniques and of playing within the rules. It is incumbent on all of us to support the rules we have in place to protect players."

The rule contradicts some of the most basic player tendencies. From Pop Warner football, players are told to drive through the tackle and not drop their head and look away from the player they're going after. As a result, the "hit zone" on a lot of players, especially receivers going over the middle of the defense, is high. If the other player lowers his head at all, helmet-to-helmet hits are part of doing business in the NFL. It happens.

As the Vikings prepare for the Packers Sunday night, both head coaches were asked their feelings about the new rule. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy seemed to take a company line with the edict, saying that teams need to stress the basics more on tackling, not improvising for a "kill shot."

"I think any time you operate with players' safety at the forefront, it's in the best interests of the players," McCarthy said. "I think it's a positive. Our approach is not going to change. We're going to continue to work on the fundamentals of football as we've done in my time here. We teach and coach the technique properly and that's the way we'll approach playing on Sunday."

Brad Childress was a little more pragmatic. The truth of the matter is that football is a game based on violence. It is part of its appeal. Former NFL player and longtime ESPN analyst Tom Jackson used to have a segment prior to ESPN prime-time games for years called "Jacked Up!" – which celebrated big hits by defenders on offensive players, many of whom would be deemed "defenseless" under the current rules of the NFL. Childress said the NFL game has been developed around hard hitting and imposing one's will on an opponent. The rule is well-intentioned. How hits will be interpreted will be the problem moving forward.

"We know that everybody's playing a violent game," Childress said. "It is a violent game. The rule has not changed appreciably. They're asking you to lower your target zone and our guys understand that. The tough part is when you've got two moving objects. The fact (is) that you can be aiming somewhere and hit somewhere else. Your guys can't slow down playing the game. You always ask them to play fast. You don't ask them to play tentative."

He said he has spoken to his players about it and said the rule will be more strictly enforced, but he seemed to share the view of several of his players that the new rule smacks in the face of what players have been taught since their earliest days playing football.

"I think all of our guys are mindful," Childress said. "We're talking about launching and things like that. Football is a game of leaving your feet. You try to get guys to stay on their feet, but the fact is guys are going to lose their footing and when you're in the air – I don't know the physics of it – it's hard to change where you're going."

Almost to a man, most of the players that Viking Update spoke to Wednesday seemed to think the blanket ruling is too broad and doesn't have a place in the NFL. Suspend headhunters? No problem. Heavily fine a player who delivers a knockout helmet-to-helmet hit? He deserves it. But to make it illegal to deliver a shot leading with the shoulder that ends up as a helmet-to-helmet hit? That's where they draw the line.

"It's garbage," defensive end Brian Robison said. "Guys get hit like that every week. That's why it's football. When you have the athletes with the speed and strength that play football, guess what? Guys are going to get hit hard at high speed. That's why we play football."

While it was expected that defensive players who get personal foul penalties if their open hand comes in contact with a quarterback's helmet would be opposed to the rule, a compelling witness was provided by a most unlikely source.

Greg Lewis, in NFL parlance, is a possession receiver. Translation? He catches primarily short passes to move the chains, not affect the scoreboard. When he has caught passes during his career, more times than not they have been slant passes in which he was asked to pull in a pass with defenders bearing down on him – each of them looking for the "kill shot." Lewis has lost many a reception over the years by having his molars loosened by defenders whose job is to make sure he doesn't hold on to the ball.

It would be natural to assume that Lewis would be in favor of the rule tp protect players. Instead, he said taking the hit and holding on to the ball is what got him the league and has kept him in the league and that, from the moment he stepped on the field, he knew what he was in for.

"I'm not a big fan of the changes in football the way it is," Lewis said. "Football is a collision sport. Everyone that plays it knows that. Do I feel bad when people get concussions or when people get paralyzed or people get injured? Of course I do and I pray for those people. But, it's what you signed up for and, if you don't want to play the way football has been played, then you shouldn't play. That's (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell's deal and, if he wanted to fine those guys that way, whatever. I would hope it doesn't get to the point that it seems like we're playing flag football instead of football. And that's coming from an offensive person. I don't enjoy getting hit, but it is what it is. Take away the helmet-to-helmet (hits) and obvious cheap shots? Yes. That needs to be taken care of. But when people just get tackled and, unfortunately, get hit in the head and get a concussion from it, I think that's just taking it to a whole other level."

Linebacker Ben Leber has been fined "a couple of times," he said, by the league fine police. He went through the appeal process, which got one fine reduced. But when asked if he had a good understanding of what constitutes the "devastating hit" component of the new emphasis, he just shrugged.

"I don't," Leber said. "Of course, I haven't been paying too much attention either. I don't know if you get a (penalty) flag and get thrown out (of the game) or they just do it after the game when they review it."

There are going to be a lot of questions asked before the games start under the "kinder, gentler" rules of the NFL, but it will be interesting to see how the NFL handles similar hits that drew $175,000 in fines on Tuesday to the three players. Will it be on a case-by-case basis? Will any helmet-to-helmet hit be included? If the defensive player is injured as well, will it mitigate his fine?

We will have to wait and see on that one, because you get the feeling the NFL is heading into unchartered waters itself. While on a campaign of player safety, it isn't being responded to as heartily with players as many would think.

Although a lot of people who don't strap on helmets make a lot of money off the business of the NFL, in the end, this is a players game and toughness – whether it comes from someone delivering a hit or someone taking one and making a play – is as respected as any part of the game.

Veteran players throughout the league speak out that the NFL is a violent game and doesn't pretend to be otherwise, but younger players are mindful of the punitive action that can be taken against players who speak out and put the spotlight on them.

It would also seem obvious that any defensive back would be opposed to the rule. Not so fast.

Vikings rookie Chris Cook is still learning the NFL. Sunday's game with the Packers (if he is cleared to play) will be his second NFL game. He may not know the NFL experience just yet, but he does know that the NFL looks poorly on players that rock the boat. As a guy looking to build an NFL reputation, it would be natural to assume that he would be opposed to the new rule. He may be, but he also knows how the NFL informs players that they have crossed the line.

"I'm not even going to voice my opinion on that one," Cook said. "I don't want one of those FedEx envelopes in my locker."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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