Ask Vic: Debating how to deal with dirty play in the NFL

We've got mail (and all of the contents in this week's mailbag deal with reaction to my piece about the NFL getting tough on dirty play):

Question: I just want to voice out my frustration over this whole safety issue the NFL is mulling over and also ask a question about it. How can NFL players possibly avoid making contact, or make the contact less potent, when the entirety of the game is on the line?

Carucci on dirty play

Complaints of dirty play are on the rise, and so are fines and suspensions. The NFL has made it a priority to knock unnecessary roughness out of its game. **More ...**

If a safety is in Cover 2 and he sees that a wide receiver is about to catch a pass in front of him, it is in the nature of his job to make sure that the wide receiver feels his wrath, because if he does, there is a very good chance that the wide receiver will drop the ball (as we have seen over the years). If he decides to ease up, it's a first down. In any case, I feel as if Commissioner Goodell is going overboard with his safety issues and is a bit power hungry. We, as fans, understand that he has to establish his presence and power across the organization, but he does not need to suck the intensity out of the game. This is football, and if a person decides to play football, they have to come to terms with the consequences which may follow, especially if they are being paid millions of dollars under contractual agreements to do what their position requires. --D'Mitriy

The commissioner doesn't need me to defend him, but I think your point that the crack down is part of some power trip is both unfair and inaccurate. His sole motivation is to make the game as safe as possible. But I assure you he is not trying to do so at the expense of the game's integrity or quality, because those are equally high priorities for him. Remember, before he became commissioner, his focus was on selling the game to sponsors and fans, and that hasn't changed. He fully comprehends that the contact is a large part of what sells the NFL.

Nevertheless, there is a clear need to curb some of the more dangerous hits because they are extremely dangerous to both the recipient and the deliverer. That doesn't mean a defender has to hold back in crucial moments. It just means he needs to find a way to make a tackle that doesn't involve launching himself or aiming his helmet at another player's helmet.

Question: Monday night's game between the Vikings and Saints saw several guys getting "blown up." What really concerns me -- and has bugged me for decades -- is the lowering of the shoulder and leaving one's feet to make a tackle. It goes without saying (to me, at least) that if you lower your shoulders, the head will follow. That's just common sense. In today's game, a player that does this to make a tackle risks not only missing the tackle, but serious injury to himself or his opponent for lowering his head in the process.

I recall Deion Sanders repeatedly failing to wrap up to make a tackle (when he attempted to bring down a ball carrier at all), and the player bouncing off of him and gaining several more yards. I despise that tactic. When I coached youth players, my mantra on defense was always, "Keep your head up, dip your hips, grab for the torso and drive with your legs." Both players are protected in that manner, the tackle is made, and the fans are treated to a good fundamental play.

NFL players could learn a thing or two from rugby players. Lead with the head in rugby, and you're liable to get your neck broken. The helmet was designed to protect the player's skull, not to inflict pain and/or injury on your opponent. Hard-hitting can be accomplished with wrapping up the ball carrier and driving him into the ground. --Kenneth L., Brentwood, CA

Good points.

I think all players need to be re-schooled on the art of tackling. And if it requires teams to take more time to address that in the offseason and training camp, then so be it.

Former Raider Phil Villapiano had it right when he said, "When you tackle somebody right, neither the ball-carrier nor the defensive player feels a thing. It's perfect."

Question: The Eric Smith hit on Anquan Boldin was going to be bad no matter if it was helmet to helmet or not. The Cardinals had put up 450 passing yards and Kurt Warner made a decent throw to Boldin. Eric Smith was going to do everything in his power make a play for his defense that had been getting toasted in the second half. Plus, Smith did not drop his head before the hit and was heading toward Boldin's chest before the other Jets safety helping on the play hit Boldin and turned him in a way that put him in a more vulnerable position.

Helmet-to-helmet contact is brutal to watch, even sometimes scary. But it's why they wear helmets. Will getting rid of helmet-to-helmet contact really help the game of football? I don't think so. Why would someone be fined and suspended for trying to make a play for his defense? --Tyler B.

I agree with your observation about the Boldin play, although Smith was in clear violations of the rules on two counts -- he left his feet and he planted his helmet into Boldin. For that, he cannot be defended.

This is not a case of fining and suspending a defender for trying to make a play. It is a case of disciplining him for doing something that clearly puts another player's health, as well as his own, in jeopardy. Given the risks that helmet-to-helmet contact poses to players on both ends of the hit, all that removing it from the game can do is give a defender greater opportunity to make plays because it literally can help prolong his career.

Question: I just finished reading your article about dirty play in the NFL. As a parent of two boys playing youth league football (grades 3-6), I am glad the NFL is cracking down on this kind of playing. Regardless of what players want to be, they are role models for children. What boy today doesn't want to play like Tom Brady, Brett Favre or either of the Manning brothers?

It would be interesting to hear from coaches at youth, junior high, high school and college levels to know how changes in the NFL affect what they do as coaches, how it affects players' attitudes, etc. Ohio high school rules have not yet adopted the same position that the NFL has taken on horse-collar tackling. I wish they would since our youth league follows those rules. One team in our league is notorious for shirt tackling -- obviously something taught by the coaches. My children play both sides of the ball so they know what it is to hit and be hit. They tolerate their bumps and bruises without whining, but both complained about neck soreness after playing this team that shirt tackles. It all flows downhill, whether good or bad. --Debbie Z., Lancaster, Ohio

That's another key part of the discussion -- the influence that the NFL game has on all other levels of football, especially the youth level.

The league is acutely aware of that influence. It is why it sponsors USA Football and other youth football initiatives for players and coaches.

It also is another reason, besides safety, that the NFL is steadfast in its efforts to do away with illegal hits.

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