On October 17, a series of big hits forced the NFL, which wants to “enhance” the season from 16 to 18 games, to take steps aimed at limiting certain hits against certain players in certain types of conditions.
The concept is simple. Generally speaking, players in defenseless postures (most importantly, those who are catching a pass and those who are throwing one) can’t be hit in the head or with the head. Though greatly complexity resides in the margins, the basic rule can be summarized that easily.
For a variety of reasons, the league’s message hasn’t really taken. In some respects, the league hasn’t communicated effectively the things that the rules allow and forbid. Also, the league’s more lenient handling of infractions like cheating (Spygate II) and fighting (Johnson-Finnegan I) has created a sense of inconsistency regarding the league’s zeal in enforcing the rules. To make matters worse, some in the media have done a poor job of drawing the line between legal and illegal hits.
Then there’s the reality that players generally have resisted — and in Pittsburgh loudly — the league’s enhanced enforcement methods. But much of the complaints are inaccurate, primarily because the players refuse to comprehend the rules, or because they choose to ignore them.
And now the virus is spreading beyond Pittsburgh.
Earlier this week, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said that Steelers linebacker James Harrison has been “red-flagged” by the league, an accurate observation given that Harrison: (1) has violated the rules multiple times; and (2) has said repeatedly that he won’t change his ways. Now, Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson has supplied a sound bite that speaks more to the question of whether Harrison is being targeted unfairly.
“I don’t think a tenth of that is fair to him,” Johnson tells Alex Marvez of FOXSports.com in reference to the $125,000 in fines imposed on Harrison for four separate incidents during the 2010 season.
Johnson’s perspective possibly has been skewed by his experiences. Marvez reports that, since the start of the 2009 season, the officials failed on 11 of 12 occasions to throw a flag in response to an illegal hit on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
As a result, Flacco doesn’t care about fines imposed after the fact; he wants flags thrown when flags are merited. “If it is a penalty, that’s all I want,” Flacco told Marvez. “I don’t want them to get fined a week afterward. I’ve gotten hit in the head and we haven’t had any roughing-the-passer calls. There’s been several over the past couple of years and we don’t get penalties. . . . I just hope it gets called evenly both ways.”
As to the Ravens defense, coach John Harbaugh has sounded far more reasonable that his counterpart in Pittsburgh when talking about one of his players.
“He’s just as physical as he’s ever been,” Harbaugh told Marvez regarding linebacker Ray Lewis. “But he’s been doing it within the rules, I think out of respect for the guys he’s been going against.”
That’s the thing that often gets lost in this discussion. Though the league admits the connection between expanding the season and increasing the enforcement methods for illegal hits, the fact that these illegal hits can injure players is irrelevant to the total number of games played. If players spent more time reflecting on the purpose of these rules and less time on complaining about the impact on their ability to deliver crippling hits, maybe the players would simply commit to adhering to the rules.
Until that happens, the issue will continue to provide a distraction, especially as more fines (and maybe suspensions) are used to effect change.