Changing a defender's mindset
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If it wasn't clear enough solely from the volume of helmet-to-helmet hits occurring week in and week out in the NFL, it was stated explicitly by Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on NBC Sunday Night Football, fines, flags and risk of injury to themselves don't dissuade defenders from coming in high, leading with their heads. Rodney Harrison said he set aside a $50k per year budget for the fines he expected to pile up pushing and often breaking the limits of player safety rules. It took receiving a suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit to adjust Harrison's play style in the least. While Harrison's disregard for fines isn't a shock given his status as the most fined player in league history, Dungy expressed a similar stance. Fined players didn't bother him as a coach, but suspensions would have him correcting how his players hit. Fines simply aren't a significant disincentive to defenders when they believe trying avoiding fines could limit their effectiveness. Rodney gave "his reputation" as the reason he was willing to accept tactics that led to fines. He valued intimidating opposing players over the money at stake through fines.
James Harrison's comments following a game in which he knocked two Browns players out with concussions shows the attitude that defenders take. Harrison wants to "hurt" opposing players, but not "injure" them. To Harrison, "You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt people." When defenders count knocking a player out of a series or even the game as a success and a goal to shoot for, it's apparent why player safety rules need big, sharp, scary, teeth to gain any traction.
The NFL can't continue to talk about valuing player safety, especially in regards to concussions, while not taking the actions they already have available to enforce player safety. Suspensions and ejections are perfectly within the league and their refs' power, but their hesitancy to take these measures has made them empty threats. If improving player safety by reducing concussions is really a goal for the NFL, they must use effective measures previously left on the shelf, ejections and suspensions, to make defenders think twice about putting a risky hit on an opponent.
October 19, 2010; 8:40 AM ET
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