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Report: NFL's safety changes slow to take hold this season

The NFL has been trying to make football safer through more player safety rules, research on better protection and teaching better techniques for playing. Of course, no change happens overnight.

USA Today examined the NFL's shift in culture in light of helmet-to-helmet hits from Washington safety Brandon Meriweather and Dashon Goldson's suspension for violating safety rules. It concluded that change is a slow process that includes a lot of education.

The report featured concussion researcher Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, founding director of the University of North Carolina's Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center, who has been working with the NFL for years. Guskiewicz said he was appalled by Meriweather's hits.


"Every time we think we've got this culture shift going in the right direction, we see stuff like that," Guskiewicz told USA TODAY Sports Monday. "It was really unfortunate. What is wrong with that guy? Hopefully they'll be able to get his behavior modified."


The questionable hits come at a time when the NFL is emphasizing player safety and reducing concussions. And the ones in Green Bay were not the NFL's only scary moments Sunday. San Diego wide receiver Malcom Floyd got sandwiched between two Philadelphia defenders and remained motionless at midfield for 10 minutes before being taken off on a stretcher. That play did not appear to be the result of an illegal hit.


It is not always easy to tell what is and isn't legal. The NFL said Meriweather's hit on Lacy is under review for possible discipline. Dean Blandino, NFL director of officiating, said Meriweather's hit on Starks was legal.


"It was helmet-to-helmet," Blandino said, "but it wasn't the crown of the helmet. They made contact with the sides of the helmet. The rule is very specific, that the contact needs to be at the top of the helmet" to be illegal.


Guskiewicz suggested that coaches should be suspended if they can't teach players how to properly tackle. That comes after Goldson didn't seemed fazed by his suspension.


"Possibly, at some point, do coaches who can't deter that type of activity, or emphasize in practice to not lead with the head, at what point do we hold them accountable?" he said. "Maybe we need to begin taking it to that level. We don't know what is going on behind closed doors. Are coaches pulling that guy aside the next day and saying, 'Look at this, this is inappropriate?'


"You'd hope that's what they're saying. But if it's going unrecognized and coaches aren't doing something about it -- I wouldn't go so far to suggest they're condoning it, I don't think they are -- but by not addressing it and not making corrections, some could argue they are condoning it."


Washington Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said he thinks it will take time for players to realize what it takes to make the game safer.


"But I think the tide will turn," Cofield said. "Right now, guys are just trained to play a certain way they have been. But I think as these rules change, more young kids we see coming up through the ranks will be more used to avoiding head-to-head collisions."


Cofield figures there is no way to eliminate concussions entirely. "They keep getting bigger and stronger and faster, so there's going to be some (inadvertent) collisions," he said. "And it's hard to avoid. But those blatant, head-hunting types of hits I think will be slowly but steadily eliminated. And I think it's all for the better."


-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor

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