NFL players are modern-day gladiators, bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. The danger isn’t going away no matter how much the league tries to legislate it.
Some NFL players are fighting back. They are tired of being viewed as the bad guys, the ones who take the brunt of the discipline from the NFL tackling police.
Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell is fed up.
“This is FOOT BALL,” Mitchell told reporters Wednesday. “If you want to see flag football them let’s take our pads off. Give me a flag to pull off. I signed up to play full-speed contact football and we’re not doing that. I feel like I have to ask a guy, ‘Hey, are you ready for me to hit you now?’ That’s crazy.”
Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the year, bristled Wednesday at the rumors the NFL might go to college rules of ejecting a player for one targeting hit.
“It’s terrible,’’ Wagner said. “You can see it now if you watch college games. They are kicking players out for clean hits because they can’t tell from certain angles. I would rather that rule stay in college rather than come up here.”
Even Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin knows what the NFL really is.
“This isn’t a contact sport,’’ he said. “It’s a violent collision sport.’’
All this comes in reaction to the NFL trying to take a tougher stance on helmet-to-helmet contact, particular after three incidents in the Monday night game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Mitchell didn't play Monday because of an ankle injury, but watched from the sidelines and saw all three hits. The one that scared everyone was Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier going down after he made a tackle leading with his head. Shazier suffered a serious back injury and his status remains uncertain.
Two other hits in the game brought penalties from the league. One was on offense by Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who leveled linebacker Vontaze Burfict with a helmet hit. The third was Bengals defensive back George Iloka’s helmet hit in the end zone on Antonio Brown.
The game was a microcosm of what the league wants to eliminate by taking a tougher stance and ejecting players immediately for targeting.
“There has to be some changes,’’ Wagner said. “But there has to be a better way than ejecting guys for something that isn’t worth an ejection. There has to be more consistency.”
Wagner and Mitchell are upset that a league action can be the same for a hit during a play and a hit after a play has ended. For example, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski received a one-game suspension for launching into Buffalo cornerback Tre’Davious White while White was lying face down on the turf after the play ended.
“We have to find a way to address it,’’ Wagner said. “You can’t have a play that’s not in the game be the same suspension as a play in the game.’’
Mitchell lashed out at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the same day Goodell signed a five-year contract extension worth a reported $200 million.
“Yes, I’m flustered,’’ Mitchell said. “We have to do better with the leadership running the league. The fans, owners and players all are disappointed in Roger Goodell. We can’t have a guy just hand out discipline on how he sees fit. There needs to be a set guideline.”
Mitchell gave a specific example.
“I’m gonna mess around and get hurt trying to protect an offensive player,’’ Mitchell said. “Maybe your quarterback shouldn’t have thrown that balled messed up.
“That happened to me two years ago. [Bengals quarterback] Andy Dalton threw a ball that [tight end] Tyler Eifert had to dive for. I was aiming for his gut. If he doesn’t dive he doesn’t get hit in the head. That was $50 grand out of my pocket because Andy throw’s a bad ball.”
Wagner and Mitchell feel that type of play could cause a player to be ejected unfairly when there was no intent to target with the helmet.
“I try to never use my head,’’ Wagner said. “But you can be conscious of how you want to hit a player, and as soon as a player lowers his head, he puts his head into it and they still will say it was my fault. It’s hard.”
Mitchell feels the flags and the comments lack fairness.
“Make that make sense,’’ Mitchell said. “I’ve got assholes like [ESPN analyst] Matt Hasselbeck calling me a dirty player and we’ve never met before. I take that personally. You don’t know me. You’ve never had a conversation with me. Don’t judge me by football because football is my competitive side.”
What a commentator says really doesn’t matter, but the NFL is in a difficult position. In the era on increased attention to head injuries and concussions causing long-term health problems, the league has to take a stand.
It’s all but impossible to legislate the brutality out of a game where the players are far more athletic than years past.
In Super Bowl I, not a single starting offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers weighed more than 250 pounds. Right tackle Forrest Gregg, a nine-time Pro Bowler, weighed 249, more than 50 pounds less than most offensive lineman today.
Many linebackers weight 250 today and run at the speed of a receiver or running back 50 years ago.
“Maybe the equipment we have hasn’t caught up with the size and speed of players today,’’ Baldwin said.
That’s a given, but Wagner doesn’t think automatic ejections (as used in the NCAA) are the answer.
“There are hits that are bang-bang and you can’t tell,’’ Wagner said. “It’s subjective. To have a player gone from a game and then afterwards say, ‘Oh man, we messed up.’ It actually was a clean hit, but that player missed out on the game.
“It makes me not want to watch the college game because I know any second a guy can be kicked out for a hit, then he’s suspended for the next game. Nobody wants to see that.”
The NFL may not go as far as the college targeting rule, but it’s clear the league will continue to opt on the side of safety, so players should expect tougher penalties and more ejections.
Players are coached not to use their head while making contact, but it’s still a game with large men running fast making split-second reactions. It's brutal and that won't change.