JUDGE: Kelly takes middle road in violence controversy

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Clark Judge

The question in the NFL today is how much hitting is too much hitting, and as a hunch, I think got the message last week when fined $75,000 for a blow on Seattle's . Woodson thinks he was jobbed, and the man's entitled to his opinion. But I'm interested in hearing from someone in a more objective position. I'm interested in hearing from someone like Jim Kelly, Hall of Fame quarterback and one of the toughest, most resilient players to pass through the NFL. When I think of Kelly I think of a quarterback who operated like a linebacker — which, in fact, he was when he was in high school — and a guy who led his team to eight straight playoffs and four straight Super Bowls. But I also think of the quarterback whose record included torn rib cartilage, a separated shoulder and several concussions, including one on the last play of his career. I guess what I'm saying is that while Kelly was a marvelous player, he's also an expert on NFL hardships in general and helmet-to-helmet blows in particular. I know he absorbed them. In fact, he probably absorbed several of them. "But I can't remember," Kelly said, laughing at the implication of that response. What Kelly can remember is watching Woodson flatten Jackson two weeks ago, one day before Philadelphia's ended 's season with a vicious blow that separated his right shoulder. Woodson and Dawkins drew stiff fines from the league office, as well as a warning that another incident could lead to a suspension. Dawkins objected. So did Woodson. And Jim Kelly knows why. "I think it was too much," he said of the fines. "It would be different if the player came out, and it looked as if he was trying to put the guy out; trying to go to the head. But they didn't. "Nobody wants a helmet-to-helmet hit, but lots of times when defensive backs are out there doing their jobs they make hits to make sure the guy doesn't catch the ball. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you're going to put your head down a little bit more. Sometimes, it goes from your pads to your head, and it makes it look so much more violent. You can talk to any player who got fined or suspended, and I'm sure they'd tell you they weren't out to do that. It's just part of the game." But that's where the NFL diverges. It doesn't consider helmet-to-helmet hits part of the game, and if players don't get the message through coaches or instructional tapes sent out by the league office, then they will get it through their wallets. The fines to Woodson and Dawkins, as well as a one-game suspension to San Diego's , are only the beginning. "I just think it's too much," said Kelly, trying to steer a middle course on the subject. "If it's a late hit, yeah, you deserve what you get. But if it's, say, a guy coming down, and he still has the ball ... or the ball just went through his fingers, and he got hit ... no. I know (for) some of those guys you have to look at the individuals. If they're constantly late, late, late with the hits, then they deserve it. "But there's a very fine line of making sure your players on defense play aggressively, because that's what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to jar you hard enough to knock the ball out but not jar you hard enough to put you out for your career." Past and present players complain that they're confused by the mixed message, and it's easy to see why. As Kelly said, when he was a high-school linebacker he was told to hit his opponent so hard "that when he got up he would know who he played against." Football is a violent game, and players are schooled to take the enemy out. That doesn't mean to injure them, but it can. And that's where the NFL becomes involved. It wants to keep its players around, which means it wants to protect the defenseless against excessive injuries, and if it takes legislating against excessive hits then the league is up to it. That's why it stepped in years ago to protect the quarterback, and that's why it's looking out for wide receivers now. "You always want to protect the guys," said Kelly, "but fines aren't enough to stop a player from being physical. I guarantee you that 100 percent of those players aren't out there to put their heads down to try to knock somebody unconscious. "Everybody needs protecting, but it's hard to instill in your defensive backs to 'watch the helmet-to-helmet thing.' Yeah, you can say it. But in the heat of the moment it's very, very tough to keep in front of you. You just hope it doesn't wind up putting somebody out for his career." The NFL won't rely on hope. It will act, and that's what's going on now. I'm in favor or it, but critics who complain that the league office is overreacting ask what would happen if, say, Ronnie Lott, a Hall of Fame defensive back known for violent collisions, were to play the game today. I don't know, but Jim Kelly does. "He might be broke," he said. Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,
Tagged: Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Seahawks, Chargers, Ike Hilliard, Brian Dawkins

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