Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weighing In On All The Hitting

Roger Goodell is in a tough spot.  

I feel for The Commish, really, I do.    

Although I don't feel too bad, because really, how bad can you feel for someone who takes a 20% paycut "because of the economy" and still makes $8.8 million a year?  Not too terribly bad, in my humble opinion.

I mean, you have to admit that the guy currently finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  

In recent years, the healthcare and scientific communities have been accumulating compelling evidence linking recurrent concussions and other traumatic brain injuries to the development of devastating neurodegenerative disorders like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Other studies have shown alarmingly higher rates of depression and dementias in retired NFL players than in the general population.  In 2009, partly due to this evidence, House Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) moved to hold Congressional hearings about the impact of head injuries on NFL players.  A somewhat embarrassing debacle subsequently played out before Congress and the American public (or at least all three people in the United States who actually watch CSPAN), culminating with the Co-Chairmen of the NFL's Committee on Head Injuries (Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano) resigning from their positions.   

The heat is on Mr. Goodell ... the heat is ... on.  

Due to the increasing pressure from Capitol Hill, the media, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and other sources, the NFL has begun to place a big emphasis on the importance of clean hits on the field.  More specifically, they're working to decrease the amount of helmet-to-helmet contact that players receive and penalize players for any and all malicious hits.  

After the slate of games in Week 6 of NFL play, it became clear that this year the NFL was taking this concept of "unnecessary roughness" to the next level.  Dozens of fines have been handed out this season to a myriad of players deemed to have acted inappropriately on the field.  These fines have ranged from $5,000 to $75,000 for a "repeat offender".  Ouch

Sounds good ... right?

In the words of the ever-wise Lee Corso: not so fast, my friend! 

Don't get me wrong, players absolutely deserve to be protected from intentional, malevolent hits on the field.  But, it's no secret that this has been a controversial issue over the last several weeks ... and for good reason.  I take issue with these fines and attempted paradigm shift for two big reasons.  

Number one: the evolution of the game of football.  

This may sound like a pretty daunting and esoteric subject for this argument, but bear with me.  

Sometime between 1968 and 1975 the game of football would be changed forever by a man still not known by many today.  The Cincinnati Bengals were created as an expansion team in 1968, and Assistant Coach Bill Walsh noted that the team had considerable struggles establishing a strong running game in their first few seasons.  Walsh outlined a game plan to include multiple short, horizontal pass plays, typically within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage to ho help open up the running game.  Defenses commented that these plays "nickled and dimed" them, but it evolved into an extremely effective way of working the pass to help set up the run.  Walsh eventually became the Head Coach of the San Fransisco 49ers, and continued to implement the same offensive strategies that he had developed in Cincinnati while in California.  After defeating the 49ers in a 1985 playoff game, Giants coach Bill Parcels famously commented to a reporter "what do you think of the West Coast offense now?", giving the offense its name today.

Over the years many variants of the West Coast offense have emerged, including the Air Coryell offense and the Erhardt-Perkins offense.  However, few, if any, teams utilize a pure version of any of these offenses; and most practice a hybrid of these strategies with others.  

But, I would argue that West Coast offense aside, we have undoubtedly seen a gradual shift in the overall offensive strategy of most teams in the National Football League.  For decades, football was a game of hard-nosed, tough-fought yards which operated primarily under a run first, pass later mentality.  

Those days are long gone.  

When you look at the statistics for the top two teams in each division of the NFC and AFC at the Week 11 mark, the numbers speak for themselves.  Overall, those teams average 225.3 passing yards per game and 121.5 rushing yards per game.  The three teams with the best records in the NFL (Atlanta, NY Jets and New England who each sit at 7-2) have similar numbers, averaging 228.2 passing yards per game and 128.5 rushing yards per game.  In fact, of those 16 teams, there are six averaging less than 106 yards rushing per game.  

It's hard to argue that the NFL is not predominantly a passing league when most (successful) teams average about 100 more yards per game passing than they do rushing.  

However, the point of this long diatribe and history lesson is that all of this passing creates an environment in which receivers find themselves in "vulnerable" positions many times throughout a game.  Every time they go over the middle to catch a pass, or elevate to get a hand on a slightly errant throw by their QB, they are frequently unable to defend or protect themselves from incoming defenders.  And since receivers, arguably, are doing these very things much more frequently today than they were 30 years ago, they will incur more injuries. 

But ... who's fault is that exactly?  Is it the fault of the safety or linebacker sitting in pass coverage in the middle of the field?  Is it the fault of the receiver for not putting their own safety as the number one priority?  Or, is it the fault of the QB for throwing a ball which required the receiver to endanger themselves to make a play?  

The NFL is trying to turn a very gray issue into a black and white one, and I don't believe that's fair to all parties involved.  If defenders are going to find themselves paying $10,000-$15,000 for "launching" themselves at a receiver running a crossing route across the middle of the field, then I would argue that a QB who floats a pass and subsequently endangers their receiver should also have to pay a fine.  I would also argue that certain plays, no matter how perfectly executed, endanger the players more than others.  So, if safety is the #1 priority, then shouldn't those plays be completely banned from the game?  

In reality, when you're moving at the speeds these players move at on the field, it's not always possible to perfectly control every aspect of your body (or to predict what the other guy is going to do with his) ... so why are we expecting players to do that? 

Again, flagrant helmet-to-helmet hits should unquestionably be fined and punished; but we're seeing fines handed down for players "launching" themselves or landing blows to the shoulder and upper chest in a way deemed to be particularly aggressive or excessive by the powers that be.  

Which leads me to issue number two: who is actually making all of these decisions?

I'm not ordinarily an uber-sympathetic listener when it comes to the gripes of NFL players.  Dozens of issues have apparently been brewing in locker rooms across America, which will undoubtedly culminate with some sort of strike, lock out or similar act of contrition following the end of the 2010-2011 NFL season.  Like me, you may struggle to sympathize with many of their complaints and wonder if any of them are grounded in a real-world reality at all.  

But, in this case, I think they have a legitimate point.

Who exactly hands down these fines?  According to Commissioner Goodell, there's a panel of NFL Executives including himself, Ray Anderson (VP of Operations), Carl Johnson (Officiating Director), other front office staff, and former players/coaches like Art Shell and Merton Hanks (who is also, coincidentally, Assistant Director of Operations for the NFL) which evaluates film of the hits and deliberates on appropriate punishment for any identified violations.  At first glance, this may sound reasonable, but many NFL players have spoken up and voiced concerns about the policy.  

One of the most outspoken critics has been Troy Polamalu, strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Polamalu believes that current players and coaches should be involved in the evaluation process to ensure that players feel that their voice and and side is heard.  Commissioner Goodell and VP Anderson quickly quashed this idea, issuing statements in which they defended the current process and identified potential issues with Polamalu's suggestion (mainly potential bias between rival teams and players).  Other players have suggested creating a panel with recently retired players and coaches as to avoid any bias, but to still ensure a realistic, grounded approach to each and every situation.  Individuals like former LB Tedy Bruschi and Coaches Mike Ditka and Tony Dungy have been mentioned as possible candidates for such a panel.  

I have to agree with the players that the current system raises some eyebrows.  From a slightly cynical perspective, all these fines create big money for the league, yet they're the ones dolling out the punishments.  It's definitely questionable that there's no unbiased third party involved in the decision making process.  And, although there may be "former" players on the panel, Hanks hasn't played in the NFL for 11 years and Shell (who was an O-lineman) has been out of the coaching picture for about 5.  Not exactly recently removed.  

If the NFL is going to continue to be so aggressive with fines for malicious or aggressive hits on the field, then they must do two things.  First, they have to be clearer about what is acceptable and what's not.  One NFL Assistant Coach commented that the instructional video sent out by the NFL to every team in the league just created more confusion for the players and coaching staff.  NFL leadership can help achieve some clarity by involving recently retired or current coaches/players in the decision-making process.  These players and coaches should have the opportunity to hear the leadership explain every decision and break down every "malicious" play for them - especially when there's controversy.  Money aside, the players deserve to understand why they're being called out for their technique so that they can adequately adjust their play in the future.    

But, the bottom line is this: unless we want to completely change the offensive identity of the NFL today, players are gong to be susceptible to big hits.  The NFL should continue to enforce punishments for flagrant helmet-to-helmet contact, but they should tread very carefully when considering fines for other hits deemed too "aggressive" unless they want to risk altering the sport of football forever.  

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