As football fans we seem to have an on-off switch about brain injuries. The top story in the NFL on Friday and into the weekend was that Cam Newton took several shots to the head on Thursday night, and the response to those shots to the head is now the subject of a league investigation. And yet as soon as the games kicked off on Sunday afternoon, we all stopped thinking about brain injuries.
I watched football all day on Sunday and was on Twitter reading what everyone was saying and I saw literally nothing about hits to the head or concussions or any of these other concerns. The game itself is so great that we simply turn off our concerns when we turn on our TVs and sit back and enjoy the games.
And yet the concerns about brain injuries are real. And so before I get to what a great Sunday of football it was, I want to present to you my thoughts on how the NFL can reduce the number of helmet-to-helmet hits and the brain injuries that go with them:
MAKE IT A PENALTY WITH REAL TEETH. Right now, helmet-to-helmet hits are penalized with 15 yards and an automatic first down. That’s not enough. It should be 25 yards and an automatic first down for hits to the head of a quarterback, and 25 yards or the spot of the foul — whichever is farther downfield — for hits to the head of a defenseless receiver. The NFL should also eliminate the half the distance to the goal line provision for hits to the head: Under current rules, if the offense is at the 24-yard line and a defender hits a quarterback in the helmet, they move the ball to the 12-yard line. I’d like to see the ball moved to the 1-yard line for any penalty where the line of scrimmage is inside the 25. If pass interference penalties can be more than 15 yards, and can give the offense the ball on the 1-yard line, why can’t penalties for the infraction that is threatening the future of the sport?
ALLOW COACHES TO CHALLENGE. If a coach thinks one of his players took an illegal hit to the head, he should be able to throw the challenge flag and ask the ref to review it — including in the last two minutes of a half, when other plays can’t be challenged. Ron Rivera surely would have thrown a challenge flag on when Brandon Marshall brutally hit Newton and the officials didn’t see it, except that the rules don’t allow Rivera to challenge that particular missed call.
HOLD THE OFFICIALS ACCOUNTABLE FOR MISSED CALLS. The officials are already graded on whether or not they make the right calls, but they need to be instructed by the NFL that blows to the head will be the calls for which they are most closely scrutinized. An official who misses a blatant hit to the head like Marshall’s on Newton should have his chances of getting playoff assignments lowered. Miss calls like that too often, and an official should be out of a job. In college football, a crew of officials was suspended this weekend for mistakenly giving Central Michigan an extra play to beat Oklahoma State. The NFL should have that kind of accountability for officials who miss hits to the head.
MAKE TWO HITS TO THE HELMET IN A GAME AN AUTOMATIC EJECTION. It’s ridiculous that the NFL automatically ejects players for taunting twice in a game but not for hitting an opponent in the head twice in a game. If you were an NFL player, would you rather get taunted, or drilled in the head? I don’t recall the NFL spending around a billion dollars to settle any lawsuits brought by players who got taunted on the field.
MAKE THREE HITS TO THE HELMET IN A SEASON AN AUTOMATIC SUSPENSION. Simple: A player commits three illegal hits to an opponent’s head in a season, he’s suspended for a game. Repeat offenders will learn that way.
HAVE A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL TAKE THE FIELD AFTER EVERY ILLEGAL HIT TO THE HEAD. The NFL has concussion spotters who are supposed to call for players to be pulled from games and checked if they fear that a player has a concussion, but those spotters clearly don’t feel empowered to use that authority very often. A better solution would be to have medical professionals on the sideline ready to run on the field and check a player immediately any time a flag is thrown for a helmet-to-helmet hit. This wouldn’t have to be particularly time-consuming: If the player appears to be fine and says he’s OK, the medical professional leaves him out there. If the player is glassy-eyed or has trouble answering if he’s OK, the medical professional takes him out for further evaluation.
Those solutions won’t eliminate all brain injuries in football. There’s no solution that will do that. But the NFL can, and must, do better.
Now on to my thoughts on Sunday’s games:
Dak Prescott is no Tony Romo. Prescott, the Cowboys’ rookie quarterback, is an impressive young talent. But he’s a long way from being as good as a healthy Romo, and any Cowboys fan who thought Dallas would be fine without Romo is kidding himself. In their last 37 games, the Cowboys are 17-5 with Tony Romo and 1-14 without him.
Adam Vinatieri is ageless. Vinatieri, the 43-year-old Colts kicker, is the oldest player in the NFL. But he appears to be as good as ever. Vinatieri went 2-for-2 on field goals including a 50-yarder yesterday, which was the 28th field goal of 50 yards or longer in his career. What’s really amazing is that Vinatieri is making long field goals far more now than he used to: Of his 28 career 50-yard field goals, 20 have come during his 11 seasons with the Colts, while only eight were during his 10 seasons with the Patriots. In his 20s, Adam Vinatieri was 8-for-13 on 50-plus yard field goals. In his 30s he went 8-for-19. And in his 40s, through yesterday, he’s 12-for-15.
Kudos to Jack Del Rio. NFL coaches just don’t have enough guts when it comes to going for two. So I was glad to see Del Rio go for two when the Raiders scored a late touchdown in New Orleans, and glad to see it work, as the Raiders made the two-point conversion and won 35-34. (It’s also nice to see that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is developing into an excellent young quarterback.)
Shaun Hill is just fine. It was a huge blow to the Vikings when they lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season, but I will always maintain they panicked when they responded by trading a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick for Sam Bradford. The Vikings should have just stuck with Hill, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 236 yards, with no turnovers, in Sunday’s win over the Titans. Bradford will eventually take over for Hill, but I’m not so sure Bradford is any better. Certainly not so much better to make him worth a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick.
It’s a great time to be a football fan. Sitting there yesterday watching four TVs, with Red Zone Channel on one screen, DirecTV’s Game Mix on another screen, and the two games of my choosing on the two other screens, I thought back to how different being a fan was 20 years ago, when we were saddled with one NFL game at a time. There’s never been a better time to watch football. Now the NFL needs to take the steps to make the game safer, so that it lasts into the next generation.