TAMPA, Fla. — Dashon Goldson must exist between two pulls.
One, there’s the physical style he has always embraced, first with the San Francisco 49ers and now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an approach that built his reputation as the helmet-rattling “Hawk” in his seven years in the league.
Two, there’s a changing NFL, one less tolerant of safeties who serve as defensive missiles, an environment where Goldson must fight his instincts for the good of his team … and his wallet.
“It has been a challenge, man,” Goldson told me Sunday, when I asked him how a transition to a new environment has gone so far. “I’m just trying to win. I play to win. With all these flags and all these ridiculous things going on with contact, I’m just sitting here trying to play hard and get a win for my team.”
Some frustration is expected. Remember, not long ago, we lived in a time when players like Goldson were praised, not fined or worse. They were the NFL’s version of slam-dunk artists, captured in highlights and stand-alone reels like ESPN’s former “Jacked Up” segment.
Times have changed. Frankly, it’s for the better. We don’t need another Tom McHale or Junior Seau or Andre Waters. There’s too much evidence that shows brains of NFL players were treated like pinballs far too long.
So the penalty flags come, and players like Goldson feel the effect. The game is different, especially for players like him, who learned to chase wide receivers like a pit bull. Lately, they have been asked to become more poodle.
It’s hard to teach someone with bite new tricks.
“Nobody’s out here to hurt anybody, hopefully,” Bucs safety Ahmad Black said. “I know him personally. He’s not trying to hurt anybody. He’s just going out to play football the way he has been playing the game since he first learned it. He’s trying to adjust. He’s trying to get better for the sake of the football team.”
Still, Goldson has paid for his sins between the hashes this month. He was fined $30,000 for a hit on New York Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland in Week 1. He was fined $100,000 for a hit on New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles in Week 2, after he won an appeal of a one-game suspension. (Missing a game would have cost him about $265,000.)
Sunday, he was flagged for another personal foul for a hit on Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Jaron Brown, his 16th such penalty since 2009 (a league high). Goldson won’t be suspended, the league announced Monday, but a fine is possible.
The blows aren’t limited to Goldson’s checkbook either. After New Orleans won here in Week 2, Drew Brees said Goldson has no regard for the rules in the middle. Brees said Goldson goes after guys’ heads, and all the while, Goldson has said he must be smart, must adjust his play. Bucs coach Greg Schiano has shared the same caution.
Two pulls. No simple way to exist between either.
“Just watching, he’s a very physical guy,” Bucs cornerback Johnthan Banks said. “He’s very smart. One thing a lot of people might not know about him, he knows the game of football like a quarterback.”
The Bucs agreed to pay Goldson $41.25 million over five years to be a quarterback-like presence on defense. Tampa Bay’s secondary needed toughness, needed attitude, after the Bucs’ pass defense allowed a league-worst 297.4 yards per game last season.
There’s nothing wrong with physical play, but Goldson has learned pumping the brake pedal every now and then is OK, especially with the way the league exists today.
Problem is, Goldson’s history works against him. He looks like a player who fits Schiano’s vision of what the coach wants a defensive talent to be. The Bucs knew this before signing him as a free agent last March.
Goldson is fast, relentless, high-flying, and at times, unforgiving and unwise when sizing up a potential target. He has the look of a no-nonsense dart in the secondary, and at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, the two-time Pro Bowl player has the physical gifts to strike when he deems the time right.
Goldson’s problem is that the ground is shaking underneath him. He works within a league changing, a tectonic shift underway. Secondary players like him could become less in number, or at least look much different, in five or 10 years in the New NFL. A former mold — Ronnie Lott, John Lynch, etc. — could be replaced by something else, something tamer.
Is it right? Wrong?
One thing is for sure: It’s the new way.
Goldson is a breed of player who could become less common as change rolls throughout the league, as flags continue to fly. How will teams weigh the cost-benefit of someone who’s aggressive but at times undisciplined within the tighter rules?
Where will the line be drawn? Will teams avoid such players in the draft, free agency and in trades?
“It’s just about being smart,” Goldson said of the rules.