Ugly times in NFL: Brawls, dirty hits, malicious moves

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2017, file photo, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree, left, fights with Denver Broncos nose tackle Domata Peko, center, and cornerback Aqib Talib during the first half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Crabtree and Talib were ejected. Leagues at all levels have spent more than a decade seeking enhanced player safety. Most of the time, those initiatives involve rules changes. In the NFL, mostly they have worked. Not so much lately. Troy Vincent, a terrific defensive back in his playing days and now the overseer of football operations for the league, promises that the NFL will look at any adjustments that will diminish the awfulness seen in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, file photo, Buffalo Bills trainers assists cornerback Tre'Davious White (27) off the field after being injured on a late hit by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Rich Barnes, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2017, file photo, Cincinnati Bengals free safety George Iloka is shown after an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, in Nashville, Tenn. Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback George Iloka have been suspended one game each by the NFL for violating league safety rules. Smith-Schuster was flagged for unnecessary roughness and taunting after a blindside hit on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh's 23-20 victory Monday night, Dec. 5. Iloka was penalized for unnecessary roughness for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. (AP Photo/James Kenney, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2017, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) smiles on he sideline during an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback George Iloka have been suspended one game each by the NFL for violating league safety rules. Smith-Schuster was flagged for unnecessary roughness and taunting after a blindside hit on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh's 23-20 victory Monday night, Dec. 5. Iloka was penalized for unnecessary roughness for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Maybe the public address announcer at NFL stadiums is a job for Michael Buffer these days.

You know: “Let’s get ready to rumble!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Unfortunately, what goes on inside the boxing ring might be safer than what we saw the last few weeks on the football field.

Brawls. Dirty hits. Malicious moves. Targeting. Launching. Nauseating.

“The unnecessary stuff is over the top,” says Broncos linebacker Shaq Barrett, who was not involved in any of the incidents and, presumably, is a neutral observer. “We should try to get that out of the game.”

Leagues at all levels have spent more than a decade seeking enhanced player safety. Most of the time, those initiatives involved rules changes.

In the NFL, mostly they have worked. Not so much lately.

Troy Vincent, a terrific defensive back in his playing days and now the overseer of football operations for the league, promises that the NFL will look at any adjustments that will diminish the awfulness seen in recent weeks.

“We have had clear directives from the competition committee,” Vincent says. “They asked us and the players to remove some of the helmet-to-helmet hits that we have seen, as well of some of the blindside blocks and other types of disparaging techniques and behaviors on the field. We have clear directive that this is not something that should be progressive, but that we strongly consider removing a player that is using these techniques that we want out of our game immediately.”

Yet the prohibited keeps happening and, it seems, to a higher degree.

“You’re always talking about keeping the poise and understanding the big picture is winning the game,” Saints coach Sean Payton says. “Part of that is mental toughness. You don’t have to respond and be macho. So many times I hear, ‘I’m not going to be punked,’ and I get that. And yet, listen, there’s a discipline element that you’re preaching as coaches. You’re trying to make them understand the big picture, which is winning, and all these side things that can take you down a path contrary to the goal.”

While fans of specific teams will take umbrage at one of their guys getting suspended — that’s a basic principle of fandom, that your team can’t be wrong — more objective observers recognize the danger zone these incidents occur in.

Two of the most insightful voices in this area, former NFL executive Pat Kirwan and former pro quarterback Jim Miller, discussed the ugliness of what we just saw during their SiriusXM NFL Radio program this week. They brought up a point worth pondering: Why aren’t players being tossed when they go so far across the line of fair play?

Miller: “When are the officials going to be willing to eject players?”

Kirwan: “They should have by now. They think throwing flags is going to stop it. I quote Ray Lewis, we are talking about a receiver coming over the middle and he did a number on the guy. I asked Ray: ‘What was going through your mind?’

‘Look, I’ve got the middle in our zone drop. Anyone who is coming in there, here comes the receiver, at no time in my life did I ever think of the rule book and let him in there with the ball.'”

Miller: “I go back to that (2015 Steelers-Bengals) playoff game, that’s what lit the fuse, that’s what got the party started. And it was payback (Monday night). The Bengals felt they were wronged by the officials. (They think) if they are not going to police it, boys, we are going to police it. They got one of ours, we’re going to get one of theirs.

“At what point will the officials eject?

Kirwan: “As soon as the head of officials tells them if you don’t eject, we are going to suspend (an official). You’ve got to get this under control. Or the league office stops the game like they should, and say ‘He’s out now.’ Why can’t they eject from New York?’

“You’ve got to control it.”

Kirwan makes an excellent point that rules on paper mean nothing unless they are enforced, and there are consequences — not only for rules breakers, but for those charged with upholding the rules.

“Stop writing rules and start throwing guys out that you, in your mind, ref, you know intentionally tried to hurt someone,” he says. “Just throw him out of the game.”

Vincent notes that players, fans, coaches, general managers and owners don’t want to see ejections.

“There are only 17 weeks and the philosophy is, if it gets out of control, we ask the referees to maintain control of the game, give them that flexibility,” Vincent says. “They have that flexibility, but we really emphasize let the players play, but if things begin to get out of control, you must maintain control of the game during that window.”

In an odd way, maybe pro players need to look back at the grassroots of the game, where USA Football’s initiatives are designed to promote safety and proper tackling techniques — and are working.

“My sense of it as coaches and maybe parents and players see those things,” says USA Football Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck, “they’re fully aware of Heads Up Football and shoulder tackling. The common denominator is, this is the right way to teach it and it is happening across the board.

“In the past, a kid might be taught differently at the youth level than at the high school level, now it is consistent. The majorities of youth and high school football now follow shoulder tackling. It’s been really comprehensive, we are seeing a great improvement, and coaches are telling us they are seeing a great improvement in overall tackling.”

Too bad it’s not always apparent in the NFL.

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