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SNYDER: Line blurs on legal, illegal hits in NFL

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In attempting to predict Russia's role in World War II, Winston Churchill called it "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." I could say the same thing about finding a solution to the NFL's safety problem. 

But not Ray Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations. Anderson seems to disagree with the degree of difficulty in reform. He suggests that players can change the nature of the game as easily as they change their clothes on game day.

Anderson appeared Tuesday on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike Show" — before Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed successfully appealed a one-game suspension for illegal hits — and argued that defensive players simply have to adjust their approach.

"The burden is on the defender to alter his target in situations like that, where a [receiver] is defenseless," Anderson said. "Here's the bottom line for us — hits to the head and neck area are potentially life-altering, as well as career-altering. We believe that, and we have enough to show us that. Illegal hits to the head and neck area are our biggest concern, and we are absolutely intent on getting those out of the game."

It's a noble and worthwhile goal, spurred by more information on concussions and more litigation on concussions. Regardless of the motivation, no one should be opposed to making the game safer. All you need is one look at the debilitating effects suffered by scores of former players.

Anderson accurately assesses the danger of blows to the head and neck area. He also correctly notes that fewer defenders attempt to wrap up ball carriers during tackles, opting instead for big, missile-launch hits. The threat of making helmet contact increases with that technique.

But it's not always the defensive player's fault.

Hits to the chest still are legal, a time-tested method of causing fumbles, breaking up passes and discouraging receivers venturing across the middle. Offensive players often are aware when a big boom is imminent. That can lead them to brace for impact and duck, putting their heads in the line of fire to catch blows intended for their chests.

Just like that, in the instant a defender calculates speeds and angles to determine the proper target area, a hit can go from legal to illegal. Expecting defensive players to adjust to last-second changes in their opponents' pad level is almost unfair. The "head and neck area" isn't always stationary, especially when players are running, cutting and trying to protect themselves.

That's a valid point for defensive players who complain about the NFL's recent crackdown on hits. But any argument that mentions the past has no place in the discussion. Reed acknowledges the need to make football safer, but also falls a bit into the history trap.

"We grew up watching the game be played a certain way and playing it a certain way," he told the Baltimore Sun after handing out Thanksgiving meals. "It is tackle football. It is a contact sport and a brutal one, a violent one at that, the No. 1 violent sport, sad to say.

"I know concussions have been a big thing, he said. "I've had concussions before, and I know guys are going to have concussions. If you want to stop it, stop the game. Like people say, it's starting to be a flag football thing."

Hardly, but I understand his frustration. Unintended consequences of the new culture have appeared.

In Week 9 at FedEx Field, Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis received an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting quarterback Robert Griffin III. RG3 still was in the field of play, but he was headed out of bounds.

Last Sunday at Pittsburgh, Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard thought quarterback Byron Leftwich was running out of bounds. So Pollard eased up, fearing a flag, a fine or both. Leftwich cut up field and scored a touchdown.

I doubt if the NFL wants players to adopt Pollard's new mindset. "Now if a quarterback is going to the sideline and I've got a chance," he told reporters Wednesday, "I swear to you I'm going to kill him."

Truth be told, Pollard can do that (figuratively) with a perfectly legal hit. Which may or may not draw a penalty.

Good luck to the NFL in trying to solve this complex situation. Good luck to NFL coaches in trying to teach what's expected. Most of all, good luck to defensive players in trying to follow the murky, theoretical guidelines.

How either of those parties will figure this out is a mystery to me.

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