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MNF hit reveals flawed rules

December 29, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

A single play last week says a lot about where the NFL’s violent hits initiative has taken us and where we’re yet to go.

It happened on the big stage – Monday Night Football – early in the second quarter when Drew Brees hit Marques Colston with a 9-yard pass that Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton tried to break up. Colston, one of the most physically gifted receivers in the league, catches the pass while twisting in mid-air. Lofton is flying at him full bore his shoulder and head at roughly Colston’s waist when the ball is caught. As Colston spins in mid-air he’s clearly still “defenseless” under NFL rules. As he’s landing, his eyes are pointed directly at Lofton. The linebacker doesn’t alter his heat-seeking trajectory, but Colston does, ducking his head as he hits the ground and …. CRACK …. a helmet-to-helmet hit. (Note: It's been hard to find video of the hit online because the NFL owns the footage but we did track one down late Thursday that's linked at right.) By now, you know how this story ends – with a 15-yard-penalty for Mr. Lofton (and likely a FedEx fine from Merton “Chicken Neck” Hanks to follow).

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, of course, went ballistic, saying he thought the play was a clean hit and that the officials were changing football. It’s a perfect example of why Gruden is so miscast as a football analyst, he reacts on pure adrenaline, like a coach, deflecting anger over the situation toward the officials, like a coach, rather than steering the discussion to where it needs to go, a frank discussion of the current rules – ahem – points of emphasis, and whether it’s humanly and physically possible to adhere to them on a regular basis.

Officiating guru Mike Pereira started steering the discussion in that direction when fired back via Twitter, saying Gruden “has no idea what he’s talking about” and noting the play was a textbook example of a helmet-to-helmet hit the league wants called a penalty.

The NFL’s PR types spent the next 18 hours tweeting copies of the league’s rules and its violent hits video. Classic misdirection. By now, we all KNOW the new rules – er, points of emphasis. The question is whether they can be followed and the game involved still be called football. Video technology is partially to blame here as we watch all their violent hits only once at full speed (when they happen) then literally dozens of times at increasingly slower speeds until a split-second football play becomes a minute-long ballet.

If we consider the play only in its true nature (full speed), the question is not “Is that a legal hit?” Clearly, it’s not. The question becomes, is it humanly possible to make a legal hit in that situation? In that millisecond, did Lofton have the ability to recognize Colson lowering his helmet and lower his own even further? There are laws of physics that govern such things, and though Roger Goodell might not want to admit it, those laws supercede even the NFL rule book.

We don’t think Lofton could have avoided his helmet-to-helmet hit any more than James Harrison could have processed that in a split second Colt McCoy went from being a rusher to a passer and was no longer fair game for a high hit.

This is where a section of the populace chimes in: JUST STOP HITTING PEOPLE IN THE HEAD AND NECK!!!!

But is it that simple? What if you woke up tomorrow to a national edict to drive on the left side of the road, effective immediately? Do you think you could just wipe out decades of habit and muscle memory and do it? How many times in a day might you start out on the wrong side? And how long might it take before you fully assimilated the new way of thinking into your behavior?

The answer is that some of us would assimilate to the new way or thinking and acting very quickly and some of us might never adjust. We think James Harrison falls into the latter category (and we think he’s somewhat of a victim of circumstance on this point). Harrison is, for all intents and purposes, a trained assassin. He’s learned to play football a certain way over the past 15 years and his behavior has been reinforced with fan adulation and large paychecks. Harrison is fully aware of his role as a thug and he’s fine (get it?) with it. The economic benefit outweighs the health and safety risks in his mind. But for a decade the hits he delivers on the football field were considered legal and now the NFL has said to him (and others like him), “You can’t kill people in quite the same way anymore.”

The NFL, of course, is being forced to do this by the specter of class action lawsuits (two exist already) filed by formed players who claim they’ve been damaged for life by the violence of football and that the league did not do enough to protect them. But in trying to combat these claims and position itself to continue growing financially (the real reason behind the violent hits initiative), the league has made even bigger mistakes (and opened itself up to even more lawsuits) by changing the rules of the game on the fly and making them so complex that a whole other sector of employees are going to claim the league is not being fair with them.

Legal wrangling aside, it’s becoming clear where we’re heading. Even if he misread the context of the controversial hit he was analyzing, Gruden got it right when he said, “If that’s a penalty, I’d throw the ball on every down.”

On with the stretch:

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) vs. Cleveland Browns (4-11)

Sunday, 4:15 p.m., CBS

Weather – or not?: Chance of rain turning to snow, temps falling through the 30s. In its infinite wisdom, the NFL moved the two AFC North games with playoff implications being played in Ohio in January from 1 p.m. to 4:20 p.m., ensuring most of the game will be played at night, and reminding us that they don’t really care about the players or fans at all if TV revenue is involved.

Announcers: Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots

Annoyance factor: Kevin Harlan is a pro and pleasure to listen to most of the time. Wilcots has improved dramatically as an analyst – from atrocious to plain bad – but still has the annoying habit of mispronouncing the names of two of the Steelers biggest stars at “ROTlisberger” and “MendINGhall.” You might not have noticed this in the past, but now that we’ve pointed it out it will grate on your nerves Sunday. You’re welcome!

Referee: Alberto Riveron

Competence factor: After four years on the job, the Cuban-born Riveron remains the NFL’s only Hispanic white hat. He also remains relatively under the radar, which is a good thing. Although we can’t find any 2011 statistics, Riveron’s crews have been on the very low end of the “penalties per game” scale in previous seasons. And yes, that does sound like some famous last words. The line: Pittsburgh -7

Smarts say: Trying to find a line on this game once again has been brutal as questions about Ben Roethlisberger’s health have lingered into a new week. On one hand, we have reports Big Ben looked good in practice Wednesday. On the other, we’ve heard the Steelers are only looking to get 25-30 snaps out of him (probably less than a half). Check out the link at right on Saturday to see how the professional gamblers who play the Hilton’s Supercontest feel about the game. The over/under of 37.5 reflects and AFC North January night game t and would result in something like 21-14 Steelers.

Key matchup: Browns Peyton Hillis vs. Steelers run defense

Because: We’ve known since the Texans game that this Steelers defense is not the physical monster it’s been in the past (giving up 42 yards more in rushing per game vs. last year). The fact that they’re still the top-rated D in the league despite obvious shortcomings in depth and performance at defensive line and linebacker might make this Dick LeBeau’s best coaching job ever. With Hillis showing recent signs of regaining his 2010 form, and one week after Steven Jackson gashed Pittsburgh for 103 yards on the ground, there’s no doubt the formula for a Browns upset starts here.

Playoff scenarios:

#1 seed

Probability: 10 percent

Scenario: NE loss, BAL loss, PIT win

Of note: NE-BUF is a 1 p.m. kick so the Steelers will know if the top see is still in play when they take the field in Cleveland.

#2 seed

Probability: 30 percent

Scenario: BAL loss, PIT win

Of note: The Bengals have beaten the Ravens in Cincinnati in four of the past five seasons (15-10 in 2010, 17-7 in 2009, 27-20 in 2007 and 13-7 in 2006).

#5 seed

Probability: 60 percent

Scenario: Any other scenario

Of note: If the Steelers are headed for the #5, the two games that will decide their Wild Card Weekend destination (SD vs. OAK, KC vs. DEN) will be going on at the same time. Did someone say “NFL RedZone”?

Note: Probabilities are pulled from, which uses advanced statistical analysis to do thousands of simulations each week.

Note x 2: A great cheat sheet on all the AFC scenarios is linked at right.

The pick: It was just two years ago that the Browns embarrassed the Steelers and snuffed out their playoff hopes in a night game at Cleveland so hopefully no one is thinking it can’t happen again. The Browns defense is also dramatically better than the Rams so quell any notion Pittsburgh will be able to control this game on the ground as they did last week. Nope, this one is coming down to quarterback play and special teams. If Seneca Wallace can avoid turnovers (we’d much rather see Colt McCoy in this game) and Josh Cribbs gets loose on a return, the Browns can win again. If Wallace turns the ball over a few times, it could get ugly…Steelers 23-10.

Last week: Another week, another double win on our pick. Yawn. Ho hum. After a truly horrendous year picking games in 2010, we’ve bounced back nicely this season at 11-4 straight up and 10-5 vs. the spread.

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