One of the biggest headlines during the 2010 season was the issue of player safety, most notably concussions. After a congressional hearing criticized the NFL for not taking the matter more seriously, the NFL took to the issue with a renewed fervor. What resulted was mass confusion for everyone; players, coaches, referees, the media and the fans had no idea what constituted an illegal hit.
This was followed by frustration by many players, most notably Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, who was fined upwards of $10,000 per infraction. Harrison lead the league in fines (with over $100,000) and criticism (with a meeting with commissioner Roger Godell in New York and a fiery jab during the Super Bowl media day) and even threatened to retire should these fines continue.
I believe that the NFL is heading in the right direction, concussions are a serious matter and the ramifications for players as they retire and grow older can be devastating, but the system with which officials determine what constitutes an illegal hit and the repercussions that the NFL enforces afterwards are a little baffling.
The first issue, of course, is what constitutes an illegal hit due to the threat of concussion. While some hits, such as the Julius Peppers’ hit on Aaron Rodgers during the NFC championship game are pretty obvious, others, most notably when defenders end up hitting quarterbacks on the head, are a little harder to explain (such as Trent Cole’s “hit” on Peyton Manning this season). Perhaps if Deacon Jones was still playing and axe chopping quarterbacks that might be an issue, but usually these penalties occur when defenders are trying to bat balls or throwing arms and their hand coincidentally ends up touching the quarterback’s helmet.
The second issue comes from how penalties are handed out. These hits are treated as personal fouls, with a 15 yard penalty, an automatic first down and a likely monetary fine somewhere down the road. A 15 yard penalty with an automatic first down is a good start, the percentage of success for an offense rise exponentially based on their position, so usually such a large penalty will result in points, but if a cornerback can be penalized 45+ yards for pass interference holding by a wide receiver’s arm, hitting a defenseless receiver or knocking out the quarterback should probably be a bigger penalty.
The monetary penalty is down right laughable; for leading with the helmet against a quarterback (say what you will about parity, but quarterbacks are definitely better protected by the rules and the officials than any other position), Julius Peppers was fined $10,000. To put this into prospective, Julius Peppers probably made about $12-13 million dollars this season(probably more, depending on his incentives for sacks and his Pro Bowl berth), which means that he makes $10,000 in about 8 hours, even when he’s asleep.
Add to the fact that Peppers will only be making even more money as his contract continues (he’s scheduled to make $16.5 million in his last year on base salary alone) and it becomes pretty obvious that $10,000 is chump change for Peppers. Furthermore, its debatable whether or not from an economic standpoint it makes sense for Peppers to be concerned, its likely he would make more money by hitting his sack escalator than having to pay a $10,000 fine every time he sacked a quarterback (For instance, Terrell Suggs hit his sack escalator of 40 in 2007 and netted himself a $5 million bonus, if he were penalized for every one of those sacks at $10,000 a piece, he still would be making $4.5 million dollars more).
The final penalty, perhaps the most laughable of all, is to suspend players for a game or two. First this makes no sense from a gameplay perspective. Why should knocking out a team’s quarterback benefit the next weeks team? It doesn’t make much sense from an economic standpoint either. Big name players often are involved in big hits and suspending players will effect the popularity of the sport, and as a result, the profits as well. The NFL is fully aware of this and has yet to suspend a player for illegal hits, and its becoming obvious (after it seemed like James Harrison was getting fined every week) that the NFL will do everything in its power not to suspend a player.
So what are the solutions? First is of course to ride out the storm. At the moment, everyone is confused by what constitutes an illegal hit, but as time goes on, players, coaches and officials will get a better feel of the rules and the worst thing to do now is to try to drastically change the rules to make players feel more comfortable. Players had issues when offensive lineman were allowed to use their hands and when cornerbacks were only allowed to contact receivers during the 1st 5 yards and I see this rule in much the same way, players might not like it initially, but with time and consistency, they will learn to accept it.
Second is to do more research on protective equipment. Hard hits are inevitable in football and modern technology has undoubtedly saved many lives. One question I have is why players have the option of using a more concussion safe helmet. After his two concussions Aaron Rodgers switched over to a new helmet, which he has credited with saving him from a concussion during the Julius Peppers hit. Why aren’t all players wearing these helmets?
Finally, I think the most fitting penalty would be a 15 yard penalty with an automatic first down and a timed penalty for the player, much like the penalty box in hockey. For instance, the first penalty in the game could net a player 3 minutes on the bench with increasing times for more penalties. This way, players who throw illegal hits are penalized against the current teams and the effect would be immediate.
If one thing that all players agree upon is a love for a game, and having to watch the game on the sideline while your backup attempts to not screw up might put enough fear in the punishment that players would actively try to avoid dangerous hits. This also will give big advantage to the offense, imagine what the Bears would look like without Julius Peppers for a drive.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.