When Brandon Meriweather returns to the field on Sunday after being reinstated from a suspension, how he plays – and more accurately, the way he plays – will be scrutinized by players, coaches, commentators and everyone else interested in the evolution of football.
Meriweather, the Washington Redskins' free safety, was suspended by the NFL last week for a history of hits to the head and neck, including two in the game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 20. He is one of a select few players who have gained the reputation as headhunters – players who are aggressive and reckless and play the game without the fear of any repercussion.
Now Meriweather, who has been fined four times for more than $137,000 for careless hits, will get a chance to show whether he can live up to his vow to improve his tackling style.
The NFL has tried, for the better part of the last several seasons, to outlaw a variety of hits that were once among the main draws of the sport. Helmet-to-helmet hits are now illegal, as are hits on any player who is deemed unable to defend himself from an oncoming blow. For the first time this year, the league has also clamped down on offensive players, ruling those who lead with their helmets are also liable to be penalized.
Such a progression has come amidst greater awareness of the long-term risks of concussions, which studies have shown do have an effect on players' cognitive functions later in their careers.
Meriweather, though, echoed a sentiment shared by teammate DeAngelo Hall, who asked rhetorically last week if it would be better to take away a player's career by hitting him low or take away his livelihood by hitting him high.
"I guess I've just got to take people's knees out, you know?" Meriweather said. "That's the only way I've really got. I'd hate to end a guy's career over, you know, over a rule. But, you know, I guess it's better other people than me getting suspended for longer."
Meriweather was fined $42,000 earlier this year by the NFL for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy. The hit, in which Meriweather launched into the left side of Lacy's head, resulted in a concussion for the running back. Ironically, Meriweather later left the game after sustaining a concussion himself when he delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on James Starks, Lacy's backup.
He said in the days following the hits that it would be difficult to change his tackling style considering he was taught to play with aggression. Now in his seventh season, Meriweather also played parts of five seasons at the University of Miami and, presumably, for all four years of high school.
That's at least 16 years of the same jarring, crushing types of tackles. In one week, it will be difficult to change that technique following one edict from the league.
"You can't do that," said Redskins strong safety Reed Doughty, in his eighth season. "If you start thinking about how to make a tackle, you're gonna miss a lot of tackles and you won't be in the league. I feel for a lot of guys who have been fined, and then have that history, and you try to change the way that you're perceived and the way that you strike. But, at the end of the day, you still have to play full speed."
Making matters even more complicated for players like Meriweather – or Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Dashon Goldson, or Houston Texans free safety Ed Reed, each of whom have also been issued suspensions for their tackling style – is that the league has gone away from working on live tackling in practice during the week.
The Redskins spend a considerable amount of time on it during training camp, but the only opportunity to hit and bring down a player is during a game. Defensive players will work against tackling dummies during the week, and when it comes to team drills in practice, they'll tag off ballcarriers like they're playing an impromptu game in elementary school recess.
"We do a good job teaching our guys what the league is asking you to do from that standpoint, but obviously, it didn't work in his case," Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "We've got to do better."
Meriweather's biggest test could come as soon as Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. If quarterback Philip Rivers finds a receiver over the middle and Meriweather grabs that player around his waist, he could shrug Meriweather off, continue running and pick up a touchdown.
"It's a fine line," Hall said. "You let him catch the touchdown pass, well, you're not a good player and you're out of the league. You hit him late, he doesn't catch the ball, but you're out a whole lot of money and you're out a game."
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