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With players crying foul, NFL getting tough on dirty play

This is personal. Very personal. It has been since the mid-1980s, when Ray Anderson first met Darryl Stingley.

Anderson was standing. Stingley was in a wheelchair.

At the time, Anderson worked for a Boston-based sports agent who represented Stingley. About seven years earlier, Stingley, while playing receiver for the New England Patriots, paid a severe price for jumping to make a catch in a preseason game. A vicious hit from Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum left him a quadriplegic. Last year, at age 55, Stingley died from heart disease and pneumonia that were complicated by quadriplegia.

Chat with Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, fielded your questions regarding player safety on Wednesday. Chat transcript

The lasting effect of that football tragedy burned itself into Anderson's psyche. It stayed with him as an agent, as executive vice president and chief administrative officer for the Atlanta Falcons, and in his current capacity as executive vice president of football operations for the NFL -- a.k.a. Commissioner Roger Goodell's right-hand man for player discipline.

"To this day, a lot of folks think that hit was totally unnecessary," Anderson said. "I saw what can happen, and I was around it. And the commissioner and I have talked about this, in particular, and we are adamant that we cannot have that happen on this commissioner's watch.

"We will do everything we can to make sure that those things don't happen because we haven't been aggressive enough and proactive enough and committed enough to make our players play within the rules and not employ illegal techniques that put our guys at risk of being the next Darryl Stingley."

That's why the league has handed out several fines and two suspensions for illegal play within the first five weeks of the season. And it is especially why, when players complain publicly about dirty hits -- and plenty of them have since the season began -- Anderson listens with great interest.

This is what he's heard so far:

Week 1:Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka accuses Redskins tackle Chris Samuels of intentionally falling on the back of his ankle after Kiwanuka beat him on a pass rush on the game's final snap; Patriots receiver Randy Moss accuses Bernard Pollard of a dirty hit when the Chiefs safety made contact with Tom Brady's knee, causing the injury that ended the season of the Patriots quarterback and the league's 2007 Most Valuable Player; Cowboys cornerback/return man Adam Jones accuses a Browns player of grabbing him in the crotch after he muffed a punt.

Week 3:Patriots safety Rodney Harrison calls a chop block by Miami running back Ricky Williams on linebacker Mike Vrabel a dirty play, telling reporters, "There's no place in the game for that."; Buccaneers right tackle Jeremy Trueblood accuses the Bears of precipitating a melee in overtime that ended with punches being thrown, penalties being assessed and fines being levied; Ravens running back Willis McGahee and coach John Harbaugh accuse the Browns of intentionally gouging the left eye of McGahee, who was forced to leave the game twice.

Week 4:Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte accuses Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch of hitting him with a cheap shot in the fourth quarter.

The NFL did not administer discipline in any of those cases, but Anderson has been plenty busy handing out punishment elsewhere. In Week 4 alone, the league issued a $50,000 fine and one-game suspension to Jets safety Eric Smith for launching himself into a helmet-to-helmet collision with Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin; a $25,000 fine to Saints safety Kevin Kaesviharn for helmet-to-helmet contact with 49ers rookie receiver Josh Morgan; a $10,000 fine to Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan; and a $5,000 fine to Chiefs defensive lineman Turk McBride for a late hit on Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler.

In Week 3, the NFL levied $7,500 fines against Titans safety Chris Hope and Raiders defensive end Kalimba Edwards for horse-collar tackles, and $5,000 fines against Redskins offensive tackle Stephon Heyer (hitting an opponent away from the play) and Raiders safety Gibril Wilson (striking an opponent in the head). In Week 2, Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack drew a one-game suspension, also for making helmet-to-helmet contact with Ryan.

Another helmet-to-helmet hit on Sunday knocked Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon out of the game with a concussion. As of Tuesday, the league had not punished the responsible player, Seahawks cornerback Josh Wilson.

Policing themselves

Anderson has been paying close attention to the pronounced trend of whistle-blowing that players have done when they believe they're on the receiving end of a cheap shot.

"I certainly will acknowledge that the players have been more vocal about it," Anderson said. "If they're feeling like they're being cheap-shotted, I think there is less of a culture of don't say it out loud and just retaliate. I think there's more of a culture of, 'I'm going to call this guy out, because I'm tired of it, and it's not good for the game.' The stakes now are so much higher, in terms of the economics, the adulation, the notoriety. And I think they're at the point now where they're going to speak out, because they can't risk being silent and trying to get the vigilante justice at some point down the road, when they may not be on the field for the rest of the year."

"When I first came into the league, if someone said, 'Aw, you ought to be fined,' everybody would say, 'Shut up and play football,' " said hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, who is not on an NFL roster but is keeping himself in shape in case a team calls. "It used to be just part of business and you knew, 'Alright, I signed up for this. It's a tough game.' But I think the fact is, for the first time that I can remember, players are talking about, 'Well, he should be fined for that.' It used to be media might have talked about it, but now you're hearing players talking about it, and that's because it's become a part of the culture."

The complaints get the NFL's attention, Anderson pointed out, "even in instances where maybe we wouldn't have thought it was as egregious as apparently the player does." But more importantly, Anderson said, is the accusations make 31 other teams aware that someone isn't playing clean and is a potential threat to the well-being of his peers.

  -- Conrad Dobler 

McGahee's allegations certainly got the attention of Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior, who saw the running back's bloodshot left eye up close during the Steelers-Ravens game on Monday night in Week 4.

"That's when you're crossing the line, when you're literally trying to hurt somebody," Farrior said. "We can't have that in the league. The tempers might flare up, and players might get angry, but there's definitely no place for that in the NFL."

Not surprisingly, former NFL offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, labeled the dirtiest player in pro football during a career that spanned from the 1972 to 1981, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

"These guys think that, just because the quarterback can wear a skirt, everybody should wear a skirt," Dobler said. "There's no place to hide in between those white lines. When people look at my knees and see those scars on them, they ask, 'Do all football players have scars like that on their knees?' I say, 'Only the ones that played.' Hey, it's a pugilistic type of sport. Someone is going to get hurt. And every time someone gets hurt, (the perception is) it was a dirty play.

"I took my fair share of licks. If you're going to give them, you'd better be man enough to get them. You keep a little book and you find that guy (that hit you). You'll play him again and you give him a shot, you ear-hole him. They straighten up and start playing right."

Given the rash of complaints and multiple fines this season, one can't help but wonder if the NFL is seeing an increase in dirty play.

Anderson said he doesn't think so. The same opinion was voiced by coaches as well as current and former players.

Commissioner's warning

Still, the day after Mack was suspended, Goodell felt the need to send a memo to all 32 clubs that said, in part: "From this point forward, you should be clear on the following point: Any conduct that unnecessarily risks the safety of other players has no role in the game of football and will be disciplined at increased levels, including on a first offense."

He took the unusual action of ordering that the memo be read and distributed to every player in the league.

"Sometimes, those memos come out -- and I don't mean any disrespect for the commissioner's office -- but I've just seen for years where coaches kind of crumple them up and throw them in the (garbage) bin," said Lynch, who played for the Buccaneers and Broncos and spent the summer in New England's training camp before being released. "This was one where he specifically said that he wanted it read to every player in the league. And I think people know, with this commissioner, when he says something like that, he means it."

Anderson called the Mack and Smith hits "clear poster-child-type situations" of what the league is trying to eliminate, because each player left his feet, launching himself into his target, and each led with his helmet. Was there also a determination that each player intentionally tried to bring harm to another player? The league doesn't go there.

"Intent is irrelevant, because we can't get inside a guy's head," Anderson said. "What we look at is if you have an illegal technique. If you launch, you have taken responsibility for not being able to alter your path toward your target. And then if the launch ends up in a helmet-to-helmet result, then you are literally, strictly liable."

That was part of the reason each player received a one-game suspension without pay. Another part was to send a stronger message about the severity of the crime.

"It's apparent that fines, in and of themselves, just don't seem to be the deterrent," Anderson said. "So, taking a guy off the field and sitting him down and having him have to look at his teammates and his head coach and say, 'I also let the club down because I'm not available,' maybe that gets the message across."

According to current and former players, loss of money speaks the loudest to offenders. If the punishment already levied doesn't curb dirty play, they suggest the league should go with longer suspensions.

"A few game checks (lost), and watch everybody just fall into place," said former Raiders and Bills linebacker Phil Villapiano, who established himself as a fierce hitter when he played for Oakland in the '70s.

When it comes to discouraging dangerous hits, safety is the league's primary concern. But it isn't the only one. Business also is part of the equation. And it is bad business for the NFL to be missing any of its biggest stars, such as Brady.

"There is no question that there is a responsibility to protect every player, but it would also be naïve to think that we don't have an interest in making sure that our marquee players are protected from unnecessary risk and illegal technique," Anderson said. "It would be foolish to deny that, because that's what makes our game. People want to come see the stars."

Tackling a lost art

Players might not necessarily be showing greater malice with their play this season than they have in prior years. Yet, some former players, as well as others around the NFL, think that good, old-fashioned form tackling has become a lost art. They believe that injuries -- such as the one that caused Boldin to undergo surgery for a fracture of a facial bone -- are happening because defenders constantly look for the dramatic hit that makes highlight reels.

"Everybody wants to hit everybody as hard as they can," Villapiano said. "Whatever happened to really good tacklers? I don't see anybody make a nice, quick, decisive tackle. I used to tell people, 'When you tackle somebody right, neither the ball-carrier nor the defensive player feels a thing. It's perfect.'

"I don't like the hits that can lead to spinal-cord injuries. I don't like the helmet-to-helmet shots, even though I was a master at it. As I've gotten older, I really don't like it. I lived through the Jack Tatum-Darryl Stingley thing. I consider myself a Raider, a team that has had some of the dirtiest, nastiest guys in the league. But I'd like to see a little bit of safety, also. These guys know what they're doing. You're professionals, and you can control the shot. I knew exactly what I was doing on every tackle I ever made."

Nevertheless, it's hard to overcome a mindset about delivering blows that players adopt even before they enter the league. To a man, some of the game's hardest hitters will tell you they long ago learned they should pour their entire body into every hit -- and all of them realized early on how much they enjoy making contact that way.

  -- Phil Villapiano 

In 1992, while Lynch was at Stanford University, the late Bill Walsh was back for his second stint as the Cardinal's coach. Former Niners players, including defensive back and Hall of Fame member Ronnie Lott, were regular visitors to practice. Lott had a reputation for being one of the toughest and hardest-hitting players in league history. He set out to pass down his legacy to Lynch.

"He kind of took a liking to the way I played the game right away," Lynch said. "I remember long talks with Ronnie about how he used to feel he had half the game won before he even stepped on the field, because people were simply afraid to come in his territory. He said, 'You've got to let everyone know, when they come into that area, it's going to be painful. It's not going to be pretty. They might come in there early in the game, but late in the game, their arms are going to get a little shorter. And when they need a big play at the end of the game, and the throw's right there and they pull up, you know you've done your job. Not only do you want them for that week, you want them for six more games. You want anyone watching that film to say they're not ever going in there.'

"It sounds barbaric, it sounds terrible, but I remember the old NFL Films (clips), when (Dick) Butkus used to talk about those things, too. Nowadays, if you (talk) about that, people think, 'This guy's a little off, he's a little sick.' It used to be it was part of the deal."

So was "cleaning up" around the piles after a play. It used to be that a good five seconds after a play, long after the whistle had blown, a defensive or offensive player standing on the perimeter of a pile could pretty much count on receiving a blindside hit.

"Rod Marinelli (when he was a defensive assistant for Tampa Bay) used to say, 'If it's wigglin', hit it,' " Lynch recalled. "That was the mantra of the Bucs' defense. Nowadays if you did that, a flag would go up in a second."

Adjustments in attitude and approach might not always be easy, but they can be made. Donnie (Torpedo) Shell, a former defensive back for the Steelers known for his aggressive hitting, admitted that if he were playing today, "The commissioner probably would call me into his office, because it wasn't illegal to tackle the way I did back then." But Shell, now the player development director for the Carolina Panthers, insisted he would be able to play under the current rules.

"It's just like the 5-yard chuck rule," he said. "Before that rule, you could jam the receiver as long as the ball wasn't in the air. He could be 10 yards, 15 yards down the field, and if the quarterback hasn't released the ball, you can still jam him. Now, you've got to let him go after 5 yards. If you're in the league, you have to adjust to the rules of the league. Not only is the commissioner emphasizing (that flagrant illegal hits won't be tolerated), your coaches begin to emphasize it, too."

"The key," New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said, "is trying to have a clear understanding for all 32 teams as to what is thumbs up and what is thumbs down. How do you hit the quarterback? Well, it's below the shoulder pads and above the knees. The hard ones are the hit on a defenseless player over the middle. There's an aggression involved in regards to the contact. Sometimes there's a flag involved; sometimes there's not. The more that you see the officials as well as (NFL director of officiating Mike) Pereira and the league office being on the same page, I think the better it is for everyone playing."

One concern another coach expressed anonymously was that, in avoiding the league punishment that results from helmet-to-helmet hits, defensive backs could start aiming lower and cause just as many -- if not more -- serious injuries without retribution. "What happens when all these DBs start going low?" the coach said. "How much more vulnerable is the receiver in that case?"

Protecting integrity of the game

Another concern that some current and former players have is being conflicted over unloading on a ball carrier, for fear of league punishment, or holding back and allowing him to run for a big gain. It's a fine line that can be difficult to negotiate.

During Lynch's first season with Denver, he was fined $75,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Colts tight end Dallas Clark. A couple of years later, he was in ideal position to lay a massive hit on a receiver over the middle, "and I kind of eased up for the first time in my career," said Lynch, who has been fined about a half-dozen times for illegal hits. "The ball was close to being overthrown, I eased up and the guy caught it. I said, 'I can't believe I just did that.' "

Lynch and others fear the prospect of the league going overboard in its efforts to make the game safer. They think too many rules and restrictions can harm the integrity of the game.

Contact is, after all, a fundamental part of football. It is a big reason why NFL stadiums are packed and why the league's television audiences far surpass those of other major sports. If more and more players hesitate to make hits for fear of punishment, the game could be significantly altered.

"By the end," Lynch said, "you're not playing football anymore."

No one is more acutely aware of that than members of the league's competition committee. When it comes to recommending rules changes, the coaches and front-office executives who comprise that group try and guard against overreaction.

"There's no question about it, you're protecting the integrity of the game," said Tennessee Titans coach and competition committee co-chairman Jeff Fisher. "We've got a rule book that's good. We always have to be very careful not to change a rule because of one play."

As far as Dobler is concerned, there isn't a whole lot to analyze about the hits football players dispense each week.

"It's a contact sport," Dobler said. "Sometimes you're the bug; sometimes you're the windshield."

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