Apparently the NFL is not content to throw flags (and fines) at any physical defensive play, but is adding the extra bonus of a suspension. Fans and former players are decrying the new rule change coming out of the league offices that dictates that any “devastating hits” or headshots (which depends on your interpretation) will result in an added suspension without a warning or fine for the first offense. It is already incredibly difficult to define what makes a routine hit and what is a devastating hit when two individuals weighing at least 200 pounds each are flying at each other at speeds we can only imagine, now there will be an added emphasis that the defensive player doesn’t do anything inappropriate when trying to take down the offensive player. Every fan is worried about the impact this could have on their team, but none should be more so than Baltimore’s loyal following.
Ravens fans have seen fines levied on the likes of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Dawan Landry and others for vicious hits on receivers and quarterbacks, and now they had better hope the team has some quality depth. If this rule is enforced the way it is written, the definition of the way defense is played will change. Let’s tally things out, shall we? The defense may not drag a player down from his collar even if that is the only place he can get to. The defense must never hit the quarterback after he has released the ball, regardless of whether he is in mid-air at the time the ball is thrown (ask Mr. Suggs how he enjoys that call). The defensive player must never lead with his helmet, though that in and of itself can be dependent as much on how the offensive player moves to get away from the contact as it is on the way the defensive player approaches the hit. The defense may not strike a “defenseless” receiver even if the ball is still in the air. The defensive player may not do anything to get in the way of a receiver racing towards the ball- and if the receiver runs into him and runs him over, that is his fault for blocking his way.
Some of these are more than understandable, and haven’t had a huge affect on the way the game is played. Most of them, in fact, reinforce what kids are taught at an early age about the right way to play the game. Face your target on a tackle, etc. The ones that are counterintuitive (and thus more frequent and tougher to prevent) are the ones that force the defensive player to think about something other than his job in the middle of the play. The defensive player’s job is to make the tackle or prevent the catch. He is paid to create fumbles, jar balls loose, and yes, hit other people incredibly hard. This is not a video game where it is all X’s and O’s, where it is all about having the right play at the right time. Defensive players need to be able to intimidate, to level a receiver and have that receiver shy away from the middle of the field the next time around. With this new rule, the leash on the dog gets a little shorter, with everyone passing by knowing that no matter how much it barks it really can’t hurt you.
All told, we probably will see the same phenomenon we see in basketball when a new (ridiculous) rule is initiated. It will be wildly applied at first, with the premier defensive players being suspended for a game or two (there is a reason they are the premier defensive players- they make big hits!), and over time the league will calm down a bit on it. But it will happen, and if the Ravens want to continue playing the way they do then suspensions could become a fact of life. The way the rule is written, there is very little a player can do to make sure he never makes a hit like that- even if it is the fault of the quarterback for leaving his receiver out to dry.
And let’s not pretend this is about concussions. If the National Football League cared about concussions they would have funded studies into the long-term effects years before they did. They would be actually compensating former players who have experienced memory loss, loss of motor skills, and a plethora of mental illnesses because of concussions. The NFL cares if Tom Brady gets a concussion, or even if Alex Smith or a ticket-seller like Chris Johnson gets a concussion. Remember, it took Keith Rivers having his jaw broken for anyone to notice what Hines Ward does on every play.
As Steve Young said last night, since the NFL can’t legislate out bad quarterbacking (that leads to these hits), this is the next best thing. I fail to see where the dirty hits are in the NFL, or that the dirty hits are not currently being prosecuted properly. If a player hits after the whistle, if he hits a player out of bounds, if he does anything outside the scope of the play, I see that player flagged, fined, and chewed out by his coach. If a player does that week after week, he is gone from his team in no time. But this doesn’t legislate that- it legislates how big a hit one player can lay on another. With a team known for delivering “devastating hit” (since when is that a bad thing in football?), Ravens fans should be ready to pay an even bigger price for daring to rely on a defense rather than a ratings-pushing, ticket-selling, highlight-creating offense.