N.F.L. Players Charge, Violently but Carefully, Into a New Era

Ray Anderson had a quiet day. Anderson, the ’s executive vice president for football operations, watched from the press box Sunday as the .

Anderson had spent the past week in the eye of the hurricane as the N.F.L. made an unexpectedly swift stand against violent hits.

The previous Sunday was a crunching one, distinguished by a succession of heavy hits: DeSean Jackson, Josh Cribbs, Mohamed Massaquoi and David Garrard were knocked out of their games with blows to the head. Jackson sustained a concussion and Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson injured his head in a head-on collision. Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison knocked out Cribbs and Massaquoi in the same quarter. safety was penalized 15 yards for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

The hits were so hard that Anderson, after huddling with Commissioner , issued an edict: beginning immediately, players would face suspensions — possibly for multiple games — for “devastating hits” and “head shots.”


Sunday was Day 1 of life in a new era.

The looming question was whether normally aggressive defensive players would hold back. Baltimore’s Ed Reed, who made his season debut Sunday after sitting out with a hip injury, said he thought the Ravens’ defense played a tentative first half. Baltimore trailed at intermission, 24-20.

“I don’t think we were as physical in the first half as we could have been,” Reed said. “We touched on that at halftime.”

Reed certainly wasn’t tentative. He forced a fumble and made two interceptions.

“With all the fines coming out, at the end of the day, you’ve got to play football,” he said. “And you’ve got to be smart playing it.”

Smart and fearless.

Many of us have been turning all this over in our minds. What exactly is the N.F.L. trying to do? Make the game safe? Make the game safer so that a wider cross-section of people can play?

Football at the N.F.L. level is a game only a fraction of people can play — or even want to play. By the millions, the rest of us watch the collisions in awe and wonder: Who would do this to their bodies?


The essential quality in the game is fearlessness: the running back who blasts through a hole, the quarterback who waits until the last second to throw a pass, the receiver who goes across the middle to make a catch in traffic.

Is the N.F.L. trying to legislate the intimidation factor out of the game so fearlessness is no longer a primary requisite? This is an exercise in futility. The game has become so extraordinarily physical that the only way to ratchet it down is to eliminate it. The league clamps down on blows to the head; now watch an increase of knee, thigh, hip and chest injuries.

Nearly 40 minutes after Baltimore’s victory Sunday, Todd Heap, the Ravens’ veteran tight end, stood in the middle of the locker room patiently answering questions about how he felt. Heap became a primary catalyst for the N.F.L.’s crackdown on heavy hits last week.

In a game against New England, he sustained a serious neck injury when New England safety Brandon Meriweather launched himself into Heap and delivered a jarring blow to Heap’s head, neck and shoulder. Meriweather’s hit was a clear violation of the rules, and he was . Under the new guidelines, he probably would have been suspended.

Heap felt the effects of the Meriweather hit twice on Sunday. In the third quarter, after the Ravens scored on a flea-flicker play, Heap was on his back writhing in pain, the result of a stinger that shot up his injured neck and shoulder.

Near the end of regulation, Heap was injured again after making a hard block.

Asked how he felt after the game, Heap said he was in a lot of pain. Asked if he was angry with Meriweather, Heap said: “This is football. You know what you signed up for. At the same time, I understand what the league is doing and I agree with it. There is a right way to hit someone and a wrong way. The league has to walk a fine line to make that distinction but still allow the game to be football.”

Asked specifically about Meriweather’s hit and his subsequent fine, Heap said, “It’s not my job to monitor how justice is done, but I’m glad something was done.”

On Wednesday, Goodell sent a memo to all teams warning that players who strike an opponent in the neck or head in violation of the existing rules could be suspended. The league also sent a video showing what it considered naughty and what it considered nice.

That was all well and good, but Goodell must acknowledge that he presides over a great but violent game. Not a rough game, not a tough game. A violent game.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

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