Players and coaches agree: Something needs to be done, but what?
The NFL’s renewed focus on illegal hits has reverberated throughout every front office, locker room, and practice field over the last few days. The echoes that are coming back from team executives, coaches, and players have been fairly uniform — everyone understands the concept of preventing serious injury, but nobody has a clue what the NFL plans to do about it, or how the league intends to legislate the kinds of tackles that everyone agrees are the natural byproducts of a game in which ridiculously athletic individuals compete violently at the highest level. The Seattle Seahawks returned to work after a Tuesday off following their 23-20 win over the Chicago Bears last Sunday, and the events of the last few days were on everyone’s mind.
“I’m not up on the specifics of the new rule’, except that the attention is more detailed because of what happened last weekend,” head coach Pete Carroll said on Wednesday. “We all support player safety in every way possible, and I think the league is trying to figure out a way to manage it.
“But I will say on the other side of it that I hope the league will figure out a way to understand from the players’ perspective that the players are trying to play the game the best they can. There are things that happen during the game that are just part of the game. And we will continue to emphasize the safety part, but there are going to be instances [where it's unavoidable]. And I hope they’ll be understanding of the viewpoint of the player as well. I know they’re trying to figure it out. But we support all the actions, and we’ll do our best to stay out of the whole situation. We just don’t want anyone to get hurt – live on, play forever, and do all the things they’re capable of doing.”
Carroll also mentioned that the focus on these hits is very different than it was when he coached in the league a decade ago, and that the Seahawks would be reviewing the new emphasis with their players more specifically on Thursday.
Veteran safety Lawyer Milloy, who is one of a handful of defensive players in NFL history to start over 200 games, and who played for Carroll in New England from 1997 through 1999, looked incredulously at one reporter who asked him if the game was too violent — Carroll and Milloy agreed today that the game is actually less violent than it was a decade ago.
“If I had a son right now and [he] was playing football in a pee-wee league, I would definitely switch him over to offense because by the time he gets to the NFL offensive players won’t be able to be touched,” Milloy said in the team’s locker room before practice. “That’s a joke, but I do understand what they’re trying to do. You never want to see anyone getting carted off. I don’t think anybody has those intentions, at least I don’t play that way, but our game is such an instinctual game that sometimes you can’t control it.
“You see receivers all the time who naturally catch the ball and to protect themselves they duck their heads. That hurts too as a defensive player [when you're] tackling that. If somebody lowers their head, running backs or whatever, that changes our target and it’s natural, and nothing is being said about that. It’s just becoming very, very difficult. It’s a very fine line the NFL is tight-roping, but as a player, I have a job to do and my job is to try and get the guy down and to minimize points.
“[The game] used to be by all means necessary. Going into the game am I thinking about it? I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t. How do I tackle this guy? Can I have the ‘Wooo!’ hits like Ronnie Lott use to talk about? They’re taking that out of the game and it’s really a shame. We all signed up for this thing and I try and do the best I can to play by the rules — which I have done for 15 years — but the one thing I’m going to do is stay true to who I am and how I play. That’s why I talked about earlier, concentrate on giving 100 percent effort and understanding collisions are going to happen and don’t worry about things you can’t control.”
Linebacker David Hawthorne agreed, and specifically mentioned that offensive players could use better training to avoid head-to-head contact. When offensive players drop their shoulders to avoid contact or gain extra yardage with a more physical move, that player is naturally more prone to having his head in the contact zone.
“It’s definitely going to have to go both ways – it can’t just be where defensive players are the only ones who hit people hard,’ because that’s definitely not the case,” he said. “There are guys who are known for their aggressive style on offense, as well.”
Hawthorne also said that the balance between the way the game is played and the need for more instantaneous discipline on these types of plays will be a tough one to strike – the game simply moves too fast, and that’s the way everyone wants it.
“Well, you obviously can’t come at people the way you did in the past,” Hawthorne said with a laugh. “We have to be conscious of it, because this is our lives, too. We love the game, and it pays us – you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize your money, and you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize another player’s safety. You’ll see guys that change, and you’ll see other guys that just don’t care and won’t change.
“I don’t know how you go from balls-to-the-wall, full speed, all the things the coaches tell you to do, and then at the end of it all, think about how you’re going to his somebody. We’ll all learn through trial and error – I mean, hopefully I don’t learn through trial and error (laughs).”
Hawthorne mentioned the ways in which the coaching staff has been trying to transmit the message that violent and effective play can still somehow be clean. “[Carroll] talked to us about it a little bit on the earlier meetings, and I think [the coaches] are going to start doing things to protect us and to protect others. I think we’ll start using different tactics in practice, to avoid those kinds of hits and that kind of bad press.”
For defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, technique is the key to everything. “I know we preach it to our guys all the time about safety. They trust us, and it’s the number-one objective — the safety of our players. We just teach them good tackling fundamentals. I saw some of those hits [from Sunday], and I know it’s caused a lot of discussion, but we just try and preach fundamentals and safety with our guys.”
Milloy, who’s been a constant in the league longer than anyone else in that locker room, talked about the conflict between violence and survival.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I woke up at 5 o’clock, I fell asleep with ESPN on and it’s the big topic. It’s a tough situation. In our league, they come in with new rules every year and it always seems like it’s 15 rules for the offense and one rule that might get put in for the defense as far as safety issues or whatever. When I came into the league, you really didn’t have to worry about how you hit, and I’m proud I came in in that era, because it’s definitely getting harder and harder for myself and some of these young guys on defense.
From vets like Milloy to youngsters like Hawthorne, the challenge for everyone will be to navigate new points of emphasis that even the league itself doesn’t seem to totally comprehend just yet. Patience through the growing pains will be key for everyone involved.