Like every other NFL fan in the world, I can’t help but grumble at the way the game has changed in the past few years. With the league’s competition committee cracking down on big hits from defensive players
on the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the league in order to protect players such as the “defenseless receiver,” there has been a massive outcry from fans and players alike, claiming that the game is being “watered down,” “softened,” or “cheapened” in some way. And frankly, I think that’s a totally fair opinion.
I wouldn’t have such a problem with the NFL’s rule changes if I really thought Roger Goodell and his merry men sincerely cared about player safety, but I just don’t see it. If you were so concerned about the players in your league, wouldn’t you be more forthcoming about the massive amount of scientific evidence coming out about brain trauma and concussions? Or would you really dare to pursue an 18-game schedule? C’mon.
While I think all of these criticisms are valid, it’s not like the NFL is suddenly going to say, “You know what? You guys are right. We were dumb. Instead of continuing to do this, let’s go back to this.” Whether you like it or not, the newer, “safer” version of football is here to stay.
With this understanding in mind, the proper way to assess the NFL competition committee isn’t by whether the rule changes are “soft” or not, but whether the rules are fair within the context of this new style of NFL football. And that’s been the problem; to this point, the rule changes that have been put into effect are entirely biased against the defensive side of the ball. Have you really heard any complaints about the new rules from offensive players? Why would they? Life is good now; receivers can go over the middle, quarterbacks can stand tall in the pocket, and running backs can catch the ball in the flat without fear of being leveled.
But all of a sudden, with the NFL’s new rule proposal to penalize running backs for lowering their heads when they run, offensive players are outraged. Listen to Emmitt Smith:
“This has to be one of the most absurd rules I’ve heard in a long time in the game of football.” – Oh, so this is way worse than the other rules that have been implemented in the past few years? Why’s that, Emmitt?
“There’s no way it’s possible for a running back to get to the situation where he has to make the decision whether or not to plow forward for an additional yard to keep the chains moving and keep the clock rolling to end the game or keep the chains moving so his team can continue to drive down the field to get a field goal to win the game.” – You’re totally right Emmitt, making that decision in a split-second is probably WAY tougher than deciding whether or not you should try to knock the ball off of a receiver as he catches it, while moving at a full sprint and running the risk of allowing a big play against your team.
I’m obviously being sarcastic here, and I hope my point is pretty obvious. We expect safeties and other defensive players to show an absolutely impossible amount of discretion when hitting an offensive player, and defenders are faced with these decisions multiple times in a game. But what about the offensive players? Don’t they share some of the responsibility in the NFL’s safety movement?
More than a few times, I’ve seen plays where a defender does the right thing on a hit: he leads with the shoulder and aims for the chest, but at the last second the offensive player lowers his head, so the hit turns into shoulder-to-helmet, and the defensive player is penalized for an illegal blow to the head. How is that fair? Did the defender really do anything wrong?
Before this proposed rule change, offensive players bore no responsibility for lowering their heads and putting themselves at risk. In fact, it actually behooved players to lower their heads. If they were able to draw a hit to the helmet, they’d probably gain an extra 15 yards. If I’m a coach, I’m probably at least reminding my ball carriers about this before every game. Something tells me this was not the NFL’s intention when they created the safety rules.
Despite the fact that this new rule would lead to even more personal fouls, some game changing penalties, and almost certainly some blown calls by officials, I hope they pass it. Not because I think the NFL is trying to make the game safer, but because they’re trying to make the game fair. Instead of making the rule to fit with the league’s public relations agenda, the motivation for this adjustment is improve the way football is played within the new NFL climate. And at this point, that’s all fans can ask for.