Football is inherently dangerous. There's no getting around it. There's no set of rules that's going to eliminate the injury report from being one of the key news items to follow throughout a given week.
That said, the league is doing the right thing in cracking down on the unnecessarily violent and potentially injury-causing hits that serve only to satisfy some fans' tastes for barbarism and brutality.
The rules put in place in recent years make a lot of sense. The league has eliminated the blocking wedge on kickoff returns because the only effective way to combat it was to "bust" it, which meant having some poor soul on the coverage team sacrificially hurtle himself at full speed into three oncoming blockers. What fun.
Outlawing helmet hits by defenders takes away some of the oooh and aaah moments for those sitting in the bleachers or on their couch, but does anyone really want to see another Darryl Stingley? No number of highlight-reel hits is worth even one more incident like that.
As for the defenders that like to use their helmet: It was meant to be a protective device, not a weapon. The league is just protecting these guys from themselves, because a helmet-led hit is just as dangerous for the individual delivering it as the one receiving it.
The new rules as written get a bit confusing because they use terms like "defenseless receiver" and "launching," and getting a feel for what constitutes an illegal hit may take some time. It's worth the wait and a few controversial calls along the way.
What's at the core of these rules, anyway? When you think about it, it's a return to form-tackling. Throw the shoulder into the midsection and drive the legs. No need to hit the head or use the head. Is that so wrong?
The quarterback gets extra protection, as everyone knows, but they are often in a sitting-duck position with high-speed action all around them. Their job is unique to the game, so their protections from blows to the head, shots to the legs, etc., are unique as well. Again, that makes sense.
The league is even scaling back that protection this year to require a blow to a quarterback's head to be "forcible," rather than incidental contact. That's worthwhile refinement. It's taking time, but the league is getting there. Maintain patience.
Defensive players don't like all the tackling/hitting rules because they feel most rule changes are skewed in the offense's favor, and they have a point. So how about the league throws the defense a bone and outlaws cut-blocking?
Offensive coaches would have my hide, but defensive players would embrace this type of change. Their knees would not be in nearly as much danger. If the league isn't going to allow defenders to launch themselves into the upper bodies of receivers and ball-carriers, why should blockers get to launch themselves at the legs of would-be tacklers?
Form tackling, head-up blocking are what football should be.
Football is a violent sport and the NFL promoted that fact in making itself the most popular and successful professional sports league in the world.
Is that fact becoming lost on the league's leaders? Are they mindful that fans pay to see violent collisions?
The impressionable years of my career were spent in the 1970s, when I first started covering the league. It was the most violent period in the league's history. A head shot was more than a result, it was a technique.
Jack Tatum delighted in his nickname, "The Assassin," and he targeted the game's top receivers for intimidation tactics that crossed the line from rugged play to vicious intent. It culminated in the tragic injury Darryl Stingley suffered in a preseason game in 1978, when Stingley was left paralyzed for life following a head shot by Tatum, for which Tatum never apologized.
That was the game of the '70s. It featured a trial in which Chuck Noll was sued for having referred to Tatum's defensive mate, George Atkinson, as part of a "criminal element" in the league. The jury found for Noll, which was the jury's way of concurring that, indeed, a criminal element did exist in the NFL.
The game went through a softening period. The head slap was outlawed, as was bump-and-run coverage. Most importantly, the NFL began putting "skirts" on the quarterback.
OK, it was necessary. The game was bordering on pure violence. More than 30 years later, however, is the league going too far in its attempts to soften the game and protect its players?
In a game between the Eagles and Colts last year, Peyton Manning was awarded a new set of downs late in the game as he was attempting to rally the Colts, when Manning's helmet was brushed by the hand of an Eagles pass-rusher. That's the truth; it was no more than brushed.
The league says it's going to allow such incidental contact this year. I'll believe it when I see it.
What really has me most concerned is the commissioner's alert on "Face the Nation" that the three-point stance could be outlawed. That's the game-changer of all game-changers. With that singular piece of legislation, the game we've come to know and love would be unrecognizable. Goodbye goal-line stands. Goodbye line play.
The fans want warriors. They want their favorite players to be men of strength and toughness. They want them to be in the mold of the Chuck Bednariks and Dick Butkus' and Jim Taylors, players of legendary grit and on whom the popularity of the game was built.
Protect the head? Absolutely. Head shots must be eliminated and rules that forbid defensive backs to "launch" and protect "defenseless receivers" are good for the game, but a rule named for a team that is being scolded for hitting too hard? That's insulting to the game, the men who play it, the men who made it popular, and the fans that pay for it.
It's a tough game for tough guys. That's the charm of the game of football.
So, which opinion do you support?