- Associated Press - Thursday, October 21, 2010

The NFL got it right.

Despite the way defensive players went on the offensive the last few days protesting the NFL’s plan to suspend players for illegal hits, the league did something necessary and long overdue.

Argue all you want about changing the game fundamentally. Go ahead and cite statistics such as personal fouls being slightly down this year _ that’s misleading because, projected through the season, they will soar to about 50 more penalties than last year.

But also take note not only of the carnage of last Sunday, but of the number of concussions, head and neck injuries listed on injury reports through Thursday: 22 players listed at some point this season with a concussion, 19 with head injuries, 16 with neck injuries.

There’s some overlap in those numbers as players suffered both, and not all head injuries are concussions. Still, those are serious numbers, and they include some of football’s most recognizable players: Chris Johnson, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Asante Samuel, Jay Cutler, Joseph Addai, Mathias Kiwanuka.

Yes, it took a rash of flagrant fouls last weekend _ James Harrison on Mohamed Massaquoi, Brandon Meriweather on Todd Heap, Dunta Robinson on DeSean Jackson _ to really ratchet up the discipline. And the problems go deeper than simply wanting to “blow up an opponent,” as NFL operations chief Ray Anderson puts it.

There seems to be a line of thought among some players that hard hits lead to “SportsCenter” clips, higher profiles and, eventually, big pay days. If they are clean tackles, then fine. If they are of the head-hunting variety, hefty discipline is warranted.

“If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I’m going to knock them out and take what they give me,” Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said. “They give me a helmet, I’m going to use it.”

Use it the way Meriweather did and Crowder won’t be wearing a helmet or a uniform on Sundays for awhile.

“Illegal hits to the head of an opponent will not be tolerated,” Anderson says in a video sent to the 32 teams this week. “A player is accountable for what he hits. Illegal techniques must be removed from our game.”

Actually, from all games on every level, and therein lies a dilemma: NFL players claim they have been taught to hit a certain way since they were young, and are continuing along that path.

What if the way they have been taught has been illegal?

Anderson touched on that earlier this week. Dozens of players mentioned it after the league ramped up punishment for illegal hits.

“The fundamentally old way of wrapping up and tackling seems to have faded away,” Anderson said. “A lot of the increase is from hits to blow guys up. That has become a more popular way of doing it. Yes, we are concerned they are getting away from the fundamentals of tackling, and maybe it has been coached that way. We’re going to have to look into talking to our coaches.”

Those coaches _ all coaches, really, from youth football on up _ will deny supporting flagrant fouls, leading with the helmet or trying to injure an opponent. Yet that mentality seems to exist in the NFL; Crowder is no lone wolf. And pretty much everything that happens in the NFL trickles down to other levels of the game.

Harrison apologized Thursday for saying after the win over the Browns that he tries to hurt people on the field. Other players didn’t make the kind of claim Harrison did Sunday, but they emphasized all week that the league was handcuffing them.

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt like that, but at the same time, what our coaches and every coach in this league tells his player is you want to separate the man from the ball,” Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman said. “You want to hit him hard. You all get jacked up for that.”

The message from the league is: “Get jacked up all you want, just keep it legal.”

As Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a web chat Thursday:

“For decades we have made changes to the game and eliminated techniques that have made the game safer, and the reaction has been similar _ that it will change the game forever. You can look at changes such as removing clothesline (hits), chop blocks, crack-back block, and horse-collar tackles, that have all improved the safety of the game. The game continues to flourish.”

Goodell, Anderson and, hopefully the players, recognize there is more to do. They could even take their cue from hockey.

When hockey executives held a two-day summit on concussions at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., this week, more than 250 doctors, experts and hockey officials discussed ways to cut down on concussions, especially in youth hockey. Those meetings received infinitesimal attention compared to Sunday’s NFL action _ and the league’s subsequent reaction.

Such a seminar is a terrific idea and something the NFL should pursue. No sport is watched more closely for head and neck injuries than football. That places a tremendous responsibility on the NFL. It lived up to that responsibility this week, and must carry it further.