Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dirty Or Not?

Who was your favorite NFL defensive player growing up? I had a few. Here are some highlights of guys who were featured on NFL Network in the Top 10 all time of hitters in the NFL.




For some of you younger whipper snappers you might have watched this guy growing up.

:19 and :22

Oh and I have to shout out my old teammate safety John Lynch.

Didn't you enjoy those highlights? Isn't that what we have been sold for decades what defensive football is supposed to be about?

Well you may be wondering what those numbers are for under each video. Those numbers signify points in each video where the player made a helmet to helmet hit on a "defenseless" player that they likely would have earned a stiff fine for today (no numbers under Lynch's video because...pretty much the whole highlight is him hitting "defenseless" players helmet to helmet). Do you consider any of these guys, several of them Hall of Famers, "dirty"?

And that brings me to the point of this blog. What signifies a "dirty" NFL player these days? Is it the guy who stomps people, or tries to wrench helmets off, or dives at guys knees, or hits guys late, or punches opposing players? Or is it a guy who's only infractions have come between the whistles when he was going full speed and after the fact someone judged his tackles to be "illegal"?

I'm speaking of course of James Harrison.

I don't particularly care if you are a Harrison fan or a Steelers fan or an NFL fan or even a guy that hates all of the above. This is about how a guy can get labeled as "dirty" because he plays the game the way we were all brought up to play it for literally decades. And this is a guy who didn't get an easy ride into the NFL anyway. He went undrafted and had to work his ass off just to make the team. Then he had to work his ass off to graduate from playing special teams to playing regular downs. And THEN he had to work his ass off to reach a perennial Pro Bowl level.

And he has done all this without what has been traditionally deemed as "dirty" play. He doesn't hit guys well after the whistle. He isn't fighting guys on the field. He isn't kicking people or spitting on people or diving at guys' knees.

What he is doing is busting his ass every single play to try to help his team win games. And for this he gets labeled dirty?

I don't get it.

Bigger than that, I don't understand how we got here.

Go down the list of Hall of Fame linebackers and find me one that didn't hit guys helmet to helmet (after the advent of helmets). Repeatedly. And to roaring applause.

I dare you.

You can't do it. For as long as I can remember Linebackers trying to knock the hell out of offensive players were what the game was founded on and helmet to helmet hits were right in the middle of that. Now you can say that because of concerns about concussions that the foundations of what made football, football has to change and that's fine. But the simple physics involved in making a tackle, especially in the open field, suggest that you will never be able to take helmet to helmet hits out of the game completely.

And I know some people will insist that James Harrison MUST be trying to hit guys helmet to helmet. Why? Because he has been fined several times?

Ok, lets do a little math.

According to this article this was the fifth illegal hit by Harrison on a quarterback in the last 3 years.

In that same time Harrison has collected:

28.5 sacks.

231 combined tackles.

13 forced fumbles.

Now if you ask me if he is "trying" to hurt somebody and can only muster up 5 "illegal" hits on a quarterback out of all those plays he made, he really sucks at being a dirty player.

But the reason why Harrison's hits are magnified is, well, because he hits like a Mack Truck. He basically gets penalized for being better at his job than most people. But that's football.

Let me say it again, THAT'S FOOTBALL!

Look at the play which prompted this suspension.

Now before I break this video down I just want to point out the fact that Colt McCoy had already run 6 times that game for 15 yards.On the year he has rushed for over 200 yards and averages 3.5 yards a carry. So its safe to say he is a mobile quarterback and the threat of him running to try to get a first down was real.

Also its important to note that once a quarterback breaks out of the pocket the rules change as far as how you can tackle him.

Here is the relevant part of the rule book


(8) When the passer goes outside the pocket area and either continues moving with the ball (without attempting to advance the ball as a runner) or throws while on the run, he loses the protection of the one-step rule provided for in (1) above, and the protection against a low hit provided for in (5) above, but he remains covered by all the other special protections afforded to a passer in the pocket (numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7), as well as the regular unnecessary-roughness rules applicable to all player positions. If the passer stops behind the line and clearly establishes a passing posture, he will then be covered by all of the special protections for passers.

Now I won't insult your intelligence by trying to make the case that Harrison's helmet didn't meet McCoy's facemask. It clearly did.

However look very closely at the play. They are running at each other full speed and at the last possible second McCoy decides to throw the ball. At that split second Harrison decides to lower his head. Now I won't pretend to know exactly was going through Harrison's mind but I will say most of the people casting aspersions because he lowered his head are full of shit.

Look at the replay again. Now ask yourself where, exactly, would Harrison have hit McCoy if he didn't lower his head?

I'll tell you where, he would have gone full face mask to face mask with McCoy and the damage would have been a lot worse. That he lowered his head, if anything, shows he was at least attempting to lower his aiming point. And in point of fact the top of his helmet only caught the bottom of McCoy's facemask.

The problem comes in with the force of the blow. But look one more time at the video for me. Harrison doesn't completely follow through on the hit and land on top of McCoy. Instead after contact is made you see him ease up and fall backwards as McCoy falls backward in the opposite direction. This isn't man on the grassy knoll conspiracy theory stuff, it's right there on the video.

But the force of the blow was great enough to give McCoy a concussion and leave him laid out on the field for a few minutes. That was very unfortunate and I never like to see a player get concussed like that. However would their be this furor to suspend Harrison over the hit had he sprang up afterwards and gone back to the huddle unscathed?

Somehow I doubt it.

It's also important to note that the Steelers were holding on to a 7-3 lead with just under 6 minutes left in the game and the Browns already at their 39 when this play occurred. Think Harrison might have had a sense of urgency to try to make a play to help his team win the game? I do.

At the end of the day the NFL has the right to change their rules and the right to punish players who they feel break those rules as they see fit. However that doesn't mean that the guy they're punishing is a "dirty" player or playing the game wrong. The truth is at some point you change enough rules and you are simply going against the laws of physics and watering down what football has meant for years and years though. That is the NFL's right but everyone doesn't have to act like they suddenly have amnesia about how the game of football has always been played.

And while I'm primarily talking about James Harrison here it applies to many other players who have been, in my view, unfairly fined essentially because they hit their opponent too hard.


Now I am sure there are those that instead of actually thinking through everything I have written will dismiss it and deem me as someone who just doesn't take concussions seriously. You couldn't be more wrong.

Let me let you in on a few things about me. I have always been considered to be someone of above average intellect. I had good grades through out high school, good ACT score, graduated from college and blew he Wonderlic out of the water. However nine years removed from having played seven years in the NFL there are days when my recall is just terrible. I have moments where I can't remember names or important numbers to save my life. And my memory is something that used to be a source of pride to me. I know that football has taken some things from me and I only pray it doesn't get much worse.

But where I differ from a lot of people is that having played the game I understand that so much about football in general, and defensive football in particular, is the physical contact. The physical intimidation that makes quarterback's throw that ball a second early when they feel the rush coming. Or makes a wide receiver think twice about making that catch going across the middle. And so no matter how many rules the NFL comes up with, these kinds of hits will always happen. And at the end of the day ex players will continue to suffer from brain trauma due to the time they spent playing football.

What would really help in my opinion, probably more than just on the field rules changes, is an overhaul of the process by which retired players have to go through to get disability benefits due to brain trauma suffered during their playing days.

Someone invoked the name of Dave Duerson earlier today on Twitter when talking down on James Harrison and I was so livid I had to log out for awhile. See so many people will bring up a guy like Duerson when trying to make a point about concussions on the field but I've seen few who will show the same focus about Duerson's time on the disability board where retired players were denied time and time again, by design, when they tried to get help while suffering from brain trauma due to football injuries. Everyone wants to bring up CTE but nobody wants to point out that the NFL has been fighting against that diagnosis and those like it for years and years in an effort to save money.

How many people actually remember this part of the NYTimes article on Duerson's death?

Duerson’s case is unique beyond the circumstances of his suicide. Since 2006, he had served on the six-member panel that considered claims for disability benefits filed by former N.F.L. players. Although individual votes are kept confidential, that board has been sparing in awarding benefits, including those for neurological damage.

Duerson himself told a Senate subcommittee in 2007 that he questioned whether players’ cognitive and emotional struggles were related to football.

However, Duerson’s legacy will almost certainly be how he apparently came to believe he had C.T.E., acted upon it and requested that his brain tissue be examined for confirmation and contribution to science

So if you want to impress me with your righteous indignation about concussions in football please take the time to speak out about the way the NFL has stacked the deck against former players to keep them from getting the disability benefits they both need and deserve. Trying to keep NFL players safe during their playing days is a noble and just cause. But taking care of those same players after they are done with the game should be as, if not more, important.

Otherwise who is really dirty in all of this?



You may be wondering what my alternative would be. Well, I'm glad you asked. First I think most helmet to helmet hits should have a standard fine based on a percentage of that week's pay. That percentage shouldn't change but it should be high enough to be punitive while low enough to be excessively so. The only time
fines should increase progressively is when there is clear intent to injure an opponent. That would include hits clearly after the whistle, dives at players knees, forearms to the head (which I personally feel are much more egregious and a lot easier to avoid in that split second before contact than helmet to helmet hits), launching on defenseless opponents and low hits initiated from behind the opponent.

My reasoning is simple, helmet to helmet is going to happen in football and its ok to punish for the act. But there is no way to "deter" something that is a matter of physics no matter how high the fines go or how many games guys get for suspensions. Also in that same vein because a guy does it repeatedly does not necessarily mean he is trying to injure his opponents. Some people will have you believe that any time a defender lowers his head he is intentionally trying to injury his opponent without every acknowledging that many times lowering your head is an attempt to lower your aiming point to avoid helmet to helmet contact.

However when there is clear intent, meaning there is no way anyone can argue that the guy wasn't trying to injure his opponent, that is behavior that can be deterred and should be.


  1. Could not have said it better...

  2. This is just dumb. Things change over time. The NFL is changing the way the game is played because of the concussion issue. Harrison is just unfortunate to be stuck in the middle of the transition. Deal with it.

  3. Last time I checked, the head isn't the only part of the body that can be lowered. It is an insult to say that he did everything he could to avoid helmet to helmet contact. He is a professional football player; he should be able to adjust to the rules of the game... other players have been able to.

  4. Those older players played under the rules of the game at that time. Harrison knows the rules, and also knows there is a target on his back, so if he continues to tackle high, going for a knockout hit, instead of going for a correct tackle, he continues to willingly put himself at risk for penalties, fines, and suspensions.

  5. I agree with everything you said, but I feel that Harrison is trying to punish (injure) opponents. As kids, we were taught to tackle. Hit them hard while tackling? Yes. But the main goal was to tackle...not punish. He makes no attempt to tackle the ball carrier.

  6. About 1 percent of helmet to helmet hits are inevitable. Accidents will happen, but they can be deterred with fines and suspensions. It is not a matter of physics that helmet to helmet hits will occur-there aren't magnets in helmets that bring them together. In almost every situation, players can control where their helmets go, and in this case, Harrison could have easily hit McCoy lower.

    Did Harrison intentionally hit McCoy in the head? Yes, he did. He has said that that is the way he plays the game and has no intentions on changing. I don't think that means that he means to injure. He's a physical player. But he can still be physical without hitting players in the head. With this being said, I believe that Harrison's hit on McCoy was just as intentional and deliberate as Suh's stomp.

    Harrison should have been suspended for more games that Suh. Harrison's hit was more dangerous than Suh's stomp. Before the whistle or after the whistle, an intentional hit is still an intentional hit.

  7. Damn, I love all these anonymous people!