By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
Some NFL players aren’t so certain the emphasis on eliminating helmet hits to defenseless players will make the game that much safer.
They worry that other areas of the body, especially the knees, will become target areas. That could lead to a longer injury list and a whole new set of problems for pro football.
“Byron (Leftwich) and I were talking about it earlier,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’d rather have a concussion than a blown-out knee. Just to be a little woozy, I think guys would take that over never walking again.”
Teammate LaMarr Woodley, one of the defensive players who deliver the hits play after play, echoed those sentiments.
“That’s what’s going to be a big problem, guys are going to be fearful of being fined so they’re going to start going at knees,” Woodley said. “That’s going to be a serious problem, knees being blown out, mess up the way they walk the rest of their lives.”
Pittsburgh, of course, was among the most vocal teams in criticizing how the NFL is ramping up punishment for illegal hits, including suspending players. James Harrison, Woodley’s fellow linebacker, contemplated retiring rather than play the game differently than he was taught.
But is it really so difficult to actually tackle cleanly anymore? How has Ray Lewis lasted so long with so few instances of making questionable hits? Charles Woodson? Jason Taylor?
When NFL football operations chief Ray Anderson announced the crackdown on flagrant fouls last week, he stressed the need to get back to the basics.
“The fundamentally old way of wrapping up and tackling seems to have faded away,” Anderson said. “A lot of the increase is from hits to blow guys up. That has become a more popular way of doing it. Yes, we are concerned they are getting away from the fundamentals of tackling, and maybe it has been coached that way. We’re going to have to look into talking to our coaches.”
Former Green Bay Packers linebacker Dave Robinson, who played in the NFL from 1963-74, said players tackle differently than they did in his days. But he doesn’t blame them for the problems.
“Go after the coaches,” he said. “Spearing was illegal when I was there.”
Hopefully, NFL players haven’t been coached away from those fundamentals — those safer fundamentals.
“All the coaches that I’ve come in contact with they’re trying to get their guys to do the right thing,” Browns coach Eric Mangini said. “They’re trying to get them to be tough and physical but play by the rules. Nobody wants to have a penalty, no one’s trying to coach penalties. You’re trying to do it the right way.”
So what is the right way?
As Anderson mentioned in the video he sent to all 32 teams last week, it’s Lewis lowering his shoulder and hitting a receiver in the shoulder or chest.
It’s never launching yourself headfirst toward the ball carrier the way Brandon Meriweather did.
It’s using your legs for leverage, your arms to wrap up, and using your head to think, not hit.
“You’re taught to tackle low in general,” Rams DE Chris Long said, “and when you’re dealing with quarterbacks it’s a little bit of a different deal because you can’t tackle them low and you can’t hit them in the head. You’ve just got to aim right in the middle. You do think about it. … You kind of have to because that’s the rules of the game now and we all work for the NFL. So we’ve got to do what the NFL wants to do.”
Last weekend, no flags were thrown for illegal hits, so the players were doing what the league is looking for. Scoring also was way up, which might indicate a slew of missed tackles as defenders shied away. But 10 defensive scores off turnovers and one on special teams caused the surge more than anything defensive players were — or were not — doing.
Still, there should be concern about protecting all parts of players’ bodies. And that goes beyond how and where they are blocked or tackled. It goes to the equipment they are using.
Or not using.
Generally, players prefer to wear as little as they can get away with: helmets and shoulder pads. The NFL is researching state-of-the-art knee, hip and thigh pads and might make them mandatory once they are fully tested. In the meantime, even if they are available, few players use them.
“That’s the bottom line: If a guy thinks someone else is a step faster without the pads or can do something better, he’s not going to wear them,” said Giants equipment manager Joe Skiba. “We discuss the equipment and the safety all the time. Overall I think (development of) helmets, pads and shoes are critical.
“You see these players. They’re getting bigger, stronger, faster all the time. The question is has the player surpassed the current technology in equipment? It’s something we seriously have to take a look at, a serious and close look.”