NFL tiptoes on the line between safety and violence

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Football, at its core, is a game of violence. A player tries to impose his will on an opponent, who simultaneously tries to impose his will in the other direction.

It’s essentially free-range wrestling, with certain players based on pre-snap alignment necessarily in position to launch a Sumo-style attempt on each and every snap to neutralize the foe. And it requires a strong degree of motivation, desire, focus, and intensity. But, as the NFL has realized over the last decade, it also must be accomplished as safely as possible.

The end result is a delicate balance, with the league in one week banning Oklahoma drills from training camp while in the next generating comments from a head coach who wants a player who literally has stepped over the line (repeatedly) to have the same “look in his eye” that led to a rash of penalties, fines, and a suspension for deliberately going beyond the rules of what players can and can’t do when pushing and shoving each other.

How can the league reconcile a constant push for safety with Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians wanting new defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to have the same attitude and demeanor as the guy who, among other things, stomped on now-Bucs offensive lineman Evan Smith, pushed a shoe into the crotch of former Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, and put his foot (and full weight) on the lower leg of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, laughably claiming after the fact that the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field had left Suh’s numb, so he didn’t realize where he was stepping?

Although Arians expressed confidence that he can control and contain an old-school Suh who carries in his mind and heart a desire and intent to inflict gratuitous pain and injury, Arians still wants to set that Suh loose on opponents, presumably hopeful that he will channel his desire to inflict pain and injury into permissible techniques and tactics.

Again, it’s a delicate balance, and it may be an impossible one to strike. Coaches want players who are driven to wreak havoc, but those players also must also understand that they are allowed to wreak only legal havoc, stopping short of breaking the rules, with the possible goal of breaking bones.

At a time when the league reportedly is preparing to make another run at 18 regular-season games, look for the league to keep drawing the line farther and farther away from actions and intentions that would potentially inflict injury. Before the league can ever make the case for more football, the league will have to be able to say that, over the past decade, rules changes have made the game sufficiently safe to justify the addition of two games per team per year.

And that’s not a ridiculous statement to make. Watch a game from the ’70s or ’80s. The level of brutality is stunning in comparison to the modern game.

The effort to make the game safer has worked. But the league currently may be bumping up against the line the resides between safe, fair football and a sport that looks like football, but actually isn’t. Where this goes over the next five years will go a long way toward determining whether football will still be football, or whether it will morph into a fundamentally different game.