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Football is dangerous, but it doesn't have to be senseless

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When the NFL puts its full muscle behind something, you tend to notice pretty quickly. Whether it's the push toward an 18-game season that began a year ago or partnerships for breast cancer awareness, when the league gets fixed on something, there is no mistaking its intent.

And as I listened to NFL VP of football operations Ray Anderson speak this week about the need to do more to curtail the spate of helmet-to-helmet hits in the game, I got the same feeling as with those previous initiatives. Big changes are a-comin'. The way this game is legislated is changing -- and likely for good. I, for one, applaud the effort.

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I watched as players took to Twitter this week to decry the impending changes. They don't want additional rules. Even offensive players like Clinton Portis -- on the receiving end of concussions from head hits in the past -- came out strongly against it. The players don't want heightened repercussions for such hits. It's a violent game, they say, with inherent risks, and it's played on instincts and adrenaline. Things happen, and so it goes.

All of it is understandable. I'm sure defensive backs were peeved when they could no longer clothesline defenseless ball carriers. I'm sure players hated the onset of helmets in the first place (ask hockey players from the 1980s how they first felt about NHL rules making helmets mandatory). I'm sure truck drivers, hauling overnight, wish they didn't have to stop at a weigh station, or sleep a mandated period of time. But those rules are there for a reason: To protect those who might not otherwise protect themselves, to say nothing of the other individuals sharing the road, or the gridiron, with them.

Sometimes those directly in the line of fire can't see the full scope of the situation. Their current positions -- this is how they feed their families, after all -- make them incapable of taking a big-picture view of the issue. Sometimes players have to be protected from themselves. Sometimes it takes legislation from above to truly change a culture.

Football will always be a dangerous game; it should not, however, be a game where helmets are used as a weapon and 250-pound bodies are used as in-air projectiles with individuals facing potential life-threatening consequences from the rule-breaking actions of others.

No doubt, someone might suffer a devastating concussion that renders him incapacitated from a perfectly legal hit on any given snap of any given NFL game. But the additional risk that comes from those launching their head into that of another -- like Brandon Meriweather did to Todd Heap, for example -- cannot be tolerated, and I came away from a chat with Anderson believing it no longer will.

No suspensions came this week; plenty will come in the future. Notice has been served.

Economists will tell us that in life, nearly every decision is a matter of incentives. Our actions are dictated by the perceived risks and rewards.

If I decide to skip work today and call in sick, can I get away with it? What's the worst thing that can happen?

We parse this out, subconsciously, thousands of times a day as we go about our lives.

Clearly, the league's current mode of operation regarding these flagrant hits -- educational videos, yearly meetings with officials, tightening up the rule book, issuing fines for offenders -- is not working. It has not created a sufficient disincentive to get players en masse to curb the practice, as evidenced by so many games this past Sunday. Instead, we saw repeated scenes of what Anderson dubbed "really disturbing" behavior, with players dropping to their knees, concussed from helmet-to-helmet hits.

With players bigger, stronger and faster than ever -- and the size of the gridiron itself unchanged -- who is to say that next Sunday we might not see two paralyzed players in one game?

Players can put aside money for fines. Even a $50,000 hit won't truly impact the game's wealthiest players. But now, if you begin separating him from a game check and, perhaps, instilling some peer pressure from teammates bemoaning his absence from the next game or two, perhaps all will take note. Coaches, running the risk of losing that star for a stretch of games, might make sure they spend a little more time reinforcing proper technique.

Now we're talking about real disincentives for such behavior. Even for a first-time offender, the threat of a real penalty looms large.

"Fines aren't getting it done," Anderson told me. "Maybe suspensions will get their attention."

Let's face it, under the current system, going for the head could get you exposure, earn you a reputation as someone to fear. Some coaches would prize that element. It might help get you paid over time. Rodney Harrison, a headhunter in his playing days, acknowledged as much on NBC's pregame show Sunday night.

"I got to a point where, if they suspended me, I knew the effect on my teammates -- the disappointment of me not being out there," Harrison said. "Not the $100,000 that got taken away from me, but the fact that I wasn't out there. That's what they're going to have to do if they are going to change the nature of these hits. You have to suspend guys."

Players aren't going to clean this up themselves. It's going to take substantial outside force to marginalize this conduct.

I can already see the backlash: This is a game for warriors. Players know what they are getting into. You can't legislate violence out of the game. Many of these hits could never be prevented. Everything happens in an instant and suspensions won't make the game safer (the subtext to me in all of this is, "I wanna see the stretchers!" -- which truly sickens me).

Anyone who steps on an NFL field has a level of bravery and courage most could never duplicate. Violence will always exist; it's part of the nature of the game. But we're talking about senseless violence in these cases.

It's not all right to take your hands -- which are supposed to be used for tackling -- and tuck them under your pads so you can better lead with your head (as James Harrison did to Mohamed Massaquoi on Sunday). Since when did that become proper technique or a common, accepted practice? That's not football. It must be dealt with more harshly than ever before.

This will always be an impact sport, even if players stay within the accepted strike zone -- between the knees and shoulders -- and use arms to tackle. No matter what rule changes or disciplinary actions, I'm not sure you could ever take a hit like Dunta Robinson delivered to DeSean Jackson totally out of the game. But players have to learn that leaning in with your head to initiate contact will result in missing some games.

It's not about making football any less macho. It's about potentially saving lives and at least doing all a sport's legislating body can do to preserve the quality of life of its players down the road. It's about making sure kids playing Pop Warner understand the dangers of leading with the head and showing them the right way to play.

All of the millions of fans drawn to this great game watch, at least in part, because of the passion, bravery and skill it takes to play at this highest level. I'm not naive enough to think concussions could ever be totally eradicated from this game.

But just like the NHL has worked to limit hitting from behind, so, too, must the NFL be as vigilant as possible about policing these helmet-to-helmet hits. No better time than the present.

Push back the trade deadline

No one knows how to promote a quasi-event like the NFL (schedule-release show, anyone?). The league sustains a year-round news cycle despite most teams only taking the field for four months.


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So change the trade deadline.

First of all, it comes too soon. Baseball and basketball and hockey all have their trade deadlines around the three-quarter point of the season, when the haves and the have-nots have been separated. It's easier to ship out a big salary, and there are real incentives to spur trade activity.

Football's deadline comes about a third into the season, and in a sport in which parity is rampant, no one is out of the race at Week 6, making the impetus to trade slight.

You could never have a trade-deadline special the way you can in the other sports, because if you did it would be devoid of content (one deal at the deadline this season). Move it back three weeks and alter some of the waiver rules, and I tend to think we might see more deals. And who doesn't love a trade?

I ran the idea past a few general managers this week, and they tended to think that something around Week 10 might be a better catalyst. We'll see what the next CBA will bring.

What to make of the Bears?

I can't figure out a bunch of things with the Bears.

First of all, Jay Cutler is a guy who thrives on making throws on the run. He's not a super-accurate pocket passer like Kurt Warner, and with a poor offensive line something is going to give (possibly Cutler's body).

Also, what's going on with veteran tight end Desmond Clark? Brandon Manumaleuna isn't getting it done as a blocking TE in their scheme, yet Clark is inactive. But at the same time, the Bears picked up a $500,000 bonus on Clark back in March before they made the move to sign Manumaleuna. So they don't use Clark and they don't trade Clark, but protection remains an issue. Strange.

This team better hope Devin Hester keeps it up, because unless he pulls off some of the stuff Josh Cribbs did with the Browns late last season, single-handedly winning games, I don't see the Bears maintaining anything close to the pace they set coming out of the gate 3-0. As I've said before, they were 3-1 in 2009 as well, and it didn't get them very far.

Frustration mounts in Green Bay

Packers fans are venting their frustrations big-time with general manager Ted Thompson. Of all the teams that sat on their hands around the trade deadline, the Packers are drawing the most heat.

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Some rival executives I spoke to believed Thompson's conservative nature, in terms of not dealing draft picks, will hurt the team this season. But for the ultimate small-market team faced with the economic realities of Green Bay, I understand keeping the draft as the lifeblood of the franchise.

I spoke to a lot of fans in Wisconsin this weekend and listened to countless sports-talk stations driving from Green Bay to Milwaukee following the overtime loss to the Dolphins Sunday. The consensus was undeniable: The front office blew it by not getting Marshawn Lynch or another running back, and they were not proactive enough after injuries struck.

For their scheme and tendencies, they'll be okay at running back, I believe. To me, it's the same as it was at the midpoint of last year -- offensive line inconsistent/banged up, and Aaron Rodgers holding on to the ball too long at times.

A year ago they pulled out of the swoon to reach the postseason, and in a watered-down NFC North, they very well could make it this season. Clay Matthews will be back to face the Vikings on Sunday, Ryan Pickett is getting closer to a return, and they're getting DBs back off the PUP list in the coming weeks.

Don't write off the Pack just yet.

Quick hits

» With Michael Vick still ailing, Kevin Kolb will start again for Philly against the Titans this weekend. But consider this: Vick ranks third in the NFL against the blitz with a 117.2 rating (24 of 40 for 385 yards, with three TDs, no interceptions and four passes of 25 yards or more). Kolb ranks 25th in the NFL in that category with a 76.5 rating (13 of 23 for 151 yards, no TDs or INTs and just one play over 25 yards).

This is just another reason why, all things being equal, Vick will remain the preferred choice once healthy, though Kolb remains the future and has played the way I expect him to as he gets regular work.

» I know he is only like 20 months removed from the CFL, but Cameron Wake might be the most underpaid player in the NFL. He is a speed demon and, at times, the Packers had no answer for him last week. Kid was working some over-under inside moves, as well.

Wake already has six sacks. He makes $395,000 this season and will make $480,000 and $565,000 in the final two years of his deal. He can earn just under $3 million total with escalators, but he's out-performing his deal and if he finished 2010 with double-digit sacks, as it appears he will, then you couldn't blame him for inquiring about a renegotiation.

No one is more integral to the Dolphins' defense right now.

» Teams in the NFL this season forcing one turnover or fewer per game are 26-62; teams forcing two or more turnovers are 64-28. The Ravens (4-1), Texans (3-1) and Saints (3-2) are the only teams in the league bucking that trend, a combined 10-4 when causing one takeaway or less. So the rest of the NFL is 16-58 when doing so. Wow.

The picks are in

I finally had a nice week with my picks (10-4), bringing me to 52-38 on the season. This week, give me the Saints, Titans, Ravens, Falcons, Redskins, Steelers, Rams, 49ers, Chiefs, Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, Packers, and Cowboys. I'm 4-2 with my only-choose-'em-once-lock-of-the-week. I'll take the Seahawks this week.

 

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