I came to an epiphany last Sunday, in perhaps one of the most disturbing ways I could imagine.
As I watched Jermichael Finley writhing in shock on the football field, following a frightening blow to the top of the head that crumpled back on his vertebrae, I realized the truth.
When it comes to instructing players how and where to hit, we’ve done just about all we can do. And players are still getting hit.
On Setpember 22, Finley suffered a concussion after receiving a shoulder-to-the-head from Cincinnati Bengal George
Iloka. The hit itself was right at Iloka’s shoulder level: in fact, you could argue that he wasn’t even trying to hit him anywhere near Finley’s head, as Finley was lowering his head in what appeared to be a dive.
That probably wasn’t much consolation for Iloka, who received a $15,000 fine what what appeared to be a passing body check…certainly not the most vicious hit we’ve ever seen in the NFL.
Had Finley not been off his feet, falling to the ground, the hit to his head would never have happened. There was little that Iloka could do to pull up when Finley’s head is coming at you faster than you are moving towards him.
A few weeks ago, Randall Cobb was lost for a good chunk of the season following a hit to his knee by Baltimore Raven Matt Elam. While many Packers, including Aaron Rodgers, expressed their frustration at Elam for putting one of the Packers’ key weapons out of commission, its hard to complain about a tackler aiming low when they know they’re going to get a huge fine for aiming at the head.
In most scenarios when Cobb would have his balance and center of gravity under him, that hit would never have happened in such a way that would have resulted in an injury. In fact, one could easily see Cobb leaping over Elam making that kind of tackle.
But in the bang-bang world of professional football, Cobb was forced to extend and leave the ground to chase down a high Rodgers pass, leaving himself blind and at the mercy of whatever waited for him at the bottom of his arc. Sure, Elam COULD have aimed higher, but we know that had Cobb leaped over him, we’d be celebrating his stupidity at aiming too low.
There’s not a lot that you can do in that situation. But one thing is for sure: Elam sure didn’t go for the head.
Now, fast-forward to this past weekend’s devastating neck injury to Finley, and again, you can make the point that the defender wasn’t being intentionally dirty and wasn’t even aiming for his head. In fact, if you look carefully, the pad level of the tackler is actually in the perfect “sweet spot” that we’d be hoping for: lower than the head, higher than the knees.
But again, Finley lowered his head into the tackle. It’s terrible and saddening, but the reality is that even the Packers conceded that the hit wasn’t dirty. It was unfortunate. And the problem again is that a defender is already thinking of a million ways to move his body to abide by the new rules, and the reality is that there simply isn’t enough time for a defender to react when everything is moving at bullet speed.
Three hits, three scary injuries, and not one was aiming for the head. The Brown flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play, Tashaun Gibson, might have gotten the penalty simply because of how frightening the aftermath was. He wasn’t fined by the league, and should have been. He lowered his shoulder to midsection height, as he should.
The case might be that not only do defenders have to be taught how to tackle safely, but ball carriers have to be taught how to keep their noggins out of the way of oncoming (and legal) tackles. And therein lies the problem: how much can you ask six-million dollar men to adjust at lightning speed?
Look, you can go after the New Orleans Saints for intentionally trying to injure players, and suspend Brandon Merriweather for being a goon. But the reality is that once you teach the players that you can’t hit with the intent to injure, it is still going to happen.
The remorseful words of Gibson this week, expressing his regret for Finley’s future hit home, but also pragmatically expressed the same sentiments that I was feeling after Sunday’s game: what else can I do???
“Right now, I’m at the point in my career where I don’t know how to change,” Gipson said. “I could come up and tap somebody and they could run over me and run through me all game. I’d be cut next season, or I could do my job. Like I said, we’ve all got a job out there. His job is to catch the ball and get it to the end zone by any means and my job is to get him on the ground.”
The future of football can’t be dictated by caution and restraint. That’s going to make the game less and less like what we remember. Where you then have to accept the changes are going to be in the equipment.
Yes, more and more helmets that resemble incandescent light bulbs, as worn by Chuck Cecil in the later stages of his career , providing more and more cushion inside for the head to prevent concussions. You might see more neck support devices, such as a shield that prevents the neck from bending back, forward, or back in on itself as we saw with Finley.
In the end, we could see as much of a quantum leap in padding and protection in twenty years as we’ve seen in NFL uniforms over the last 70. Imagine the leather-helmeted players of yore coming face to face with the plasticized armor today’s players wear. In 1940, Dick Plasman was heralded as the last player to play in a game without a helmet. Imagine how he’d regard today’s uniform.
Perhaps in the future, an NFL uniform will look like an inflatable sumo wrestler suit in comparison to what is worn today. It will be different, and it will be mocked by those who believe in a more “real” version of football.
But make no mistake: heavily armored (and protected) players will play more “real” football than players who second-guess every single tackle they try to make. The change is coming, but everything that has can be changed about player behavior is done.
It’s time for the NFL, players, and us to step aside and usher in a new generation of uniforms and helmets.
C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV. He is the co-host of the weekly Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio and is the good cop running PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.