Back Off, NFL
Even the most hard-boiled Eagles fan had to be cheered by the news early Sunday evening that Indianapolis receiver Austin Collie, victim of a gridiron version of The Malachi Crunch, had suffered “just” a concussion. Collie had been removed from the field on a body board, accompanied by the requisite solemnities, and appeared to have been severely injured. He will most likely miss a week or two before returning to action.
The hit that sent Collie to the locker room was delivered by rookie Eagles safety Kurt Coleman, a seventh-round pick who was in the game because starter Nate Allen had been banged up. For the next several days, we will hear plenty of local and national debate about whether Coleman should be suspended, fined or drawn and quartered. In one corner will be the NFL’s “kinder, gentler” brigade, which would have us believe it cares about players’ safety, when all it really concerns itself is the bottom line and the impact wounded stars have on it. On the other will be the rock-’em, sock-’em crowd, which is now sick of the New Way. [SIGNUP]
The fact is that Coleman’s hit was legal and should not have brought a penalty. (Referee Carl Cheffers flagged Quintin Mikell, the other half of the terrible twosome, but later admitted he should have penalized Coleman.) Collie caught the ball, turned upfield and took at least one step — if not two — before the angry Eagles arrived. That takes care of the “defenseless receiver” malarkey. Further, Coleman led with his shoulder and would have collided with Collie in his shoulder pads had the receiver not lowered his head in anticipation of the hit. (That further debunks the “defenseless” argument.)
As Collie lay motionless on the field, it was difficult to take a hard line against the referee’s call. But it had to be taken nonetheless. At halftime, the CBS studio crew was unanimous in its defense of Coleman. Bill Cowher, a former player and coach, was particularly adamant that Coleman should not be fined. And he shouldn’t be. Further, the league’s new push to protect its star offensive players is creating an environment that has officials acting like trigger-happy deputies and defensive players wondering how they should play the game.
It is a good thing the NFL is working to eliminate deliberate hits to the head. Those are unnecessary and highly dangerous. But the rest of it is an overreaction to the possibility that the people who make the cash registers ring may miss time and lessen the on-field product’s excitement, a real concern in this ho-hum season.
Sunday afternoon, former Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner joined me, Brian Seltzer and Joe DeCamara on 97.5 The Fanatic’s Eagles pre-game show. When I asked him what he thought of the new “emphasis” on limiting the ferocity, he was quick to voice his displeasure.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Joyner said. “I understand that you’ve got stars in the game, and you’ve got big-time players making big-time money, and the league is trying to protect them. But injuries in football are an occupational hazard. You know what you sign up for when you sign up.”
Joyner says it’s practically impossible for defensive players to be perfect when hitting receivers. Pass catchers try to protect themselves from danger and often turtle after the catch. A linebacker or D-back zeroing in on his target can’t adjust his path at the last second to compensate for his quarry’s reaction, but the NFL is asking him to do just that.
“When the offensive player is going to put his head down, you can come with all the right intentions of hitting with your head up and your facemask in the right place and so on and so forth, but when that player knows he’s going to get hit, and he ducks his head, and you go helmet to helmet, you can’t control that,” Joyner says.
One of Joyner’s teammates when he was with the Eagles was the late Andre Waters, who committed suicide in 2006. An autopsy revealed that Waters’ 44-year old brain resembled that of someone 40 years older, thanks to the degenerative effects of the many crushing, head-first hits Waters had delivered and absorbed. After calling Waters a “blood brother,” Joyner delivered the most sobering reality of NFL football and the toll it exacts.
“When you sign up to play football at its highest level, you know what you’re signing up for,” he said. “You know what you’re buying into. When you sign that contract and you’re making exceedingly more [money] than what the average person is making, what you’re saying is, ‘I’m willing to put my health, I’m willing to put my well-being on the line for the game I love and the lifestyle that it’s going to afford me from a salary standpoint.’
“You can never minimize that. Nobody made me play. Nobody made Andre play. Nobody is making [Eagles wide receiver] DeSean Jackson get back out on the field. Guys play the game because they love the game, and they understand what comes with it.”
That point was made quite clear to Collie Sunday. The NFL should not blame the messenger for delivering it. It would be dead wrong to fine Kurt Coleman. Let’s hope the league gets this one right.