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NFL must admit that rules have changed
The circus officially arrived on Park Avenue in Manhattan on Monday as Bountygate reached the offices of the NFL.
But the white elephant in the room that isn't being talked about is that people like football for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest is that it's a violent game. People don't like talking about it, but it's true.
Former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was summoned to New York to meet with NFL investigators about league allegations that Williams was running a bounty program in New Orleans and apparently at a few other places he previously worked (Washington and Buffalo).
Over the past few days I've heard a few people, including former players, say that this is a league-wide problem. That's total BS. I played in the NFL for 15 years for two teams and never once was offered money to knock someone out of a game. If I had been offered money, I'd be a really wealthy man today. I even called some of my friends that played to see if they ever had been offered any bounties. None had. Don't get me wrong, we had player-generated incentives within our locker room, like $500 for interceptions or forced fumbles, but never, ever for hurting someone.
I'm not saying that there never have been bounties. When I first came into the league in '93, I heard other players talking about them, but those were more in terms of big hits and not hurting people. Coincidentally, teams stopped that process once the salary cap became part of the NFL. Any incentives were seen by the league as trying to circumvent the cap.
And I certainly heard the rumors about the 2009 NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Vikings where a bounty was put out on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre. In the league investigation that came out Friday, that now appears to be the case. The report said that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered any defensive teammate $10,000 to knock Favre out of the game. Favre took some big shots in that game, and I remember thinking a couple of them were borderline late and could have been called as penalties.
Favre since has come out and said, "It's football" and that he is not upset with the Saints. That's the way Brett is. If I heard somebody had a bounty on me, it wouldn't have bothered me, but I certainly would have had my head on a swivel.
I think the biggest fallacy is that most players are out to hurt other players. I never experienced that.
As a safety, I did want players that came into my area to know they were going to pay for it. If a receiver came my way, I wanted to make it uncomfortable for him, to make sure he thought twice about coming my way again. Or if a running back was fighting for extra yards, I punished him to make sure he would have second thoughts about fighting for those extra yards the next time. But I never did it with the intent of injuring or taking someone out of the game.
That's the mentality that defenses are supposed to have, and it's how football should be played. It's ridiculous to think any other way.
It appears that most of the Saints chain of command knew what was going on. Sean Payton is a good friend of mine, and I think he's one of the best coaches in the game. While I think most of this is on Williams, some responsibility still falls on Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis if they didn't try to put an immediate stop to this once they found out.
With his decision, commissioner Roger Goodell has a great opportunity to reinforce one of his top initiatives of player safety, so he's got to prove he's serious.
Today's game is so fast, and players sometimes are being fined over a matter of inches. To do something as blatant as the Saints were doing — to try to hurt players and knock them out of the game — is egregious in my mind.
I think the commissioner has to make a big statement with the punishment. Whatever the punishment is, it needs to be reflected in the severity of what the Saints did. If he doesn't act accordingly, he'll lose credibility with the players.
However, there is one thing that is still bugging me about all of this. The league wants you to believe that the rules haven't changed. But they have.
I recently watched an NFL Films show on big hits that included old footage, and I can't tell you how many players would have been fined or suspended by today's standards — and I only watched for 15 minutes.
I think there's a little bit of hypocrisy going on. The NFL can't have it both ways. It can't celebrate the hits on one hand, yet come down on the players on the other. And that's always been the frustration of a lot of players.
I started playing in 1993, and I don't think I was fined for a hit the first four years of my career. Then, I was fined for the first time in 1997. I can tell you my game didn't change one bit. I was still playing the exact same way.
I've talked to Goodell, and I truly do think he cares a lot about the players. And if player safety is the way the league is going to go, then the first step needs to be for the NFL to admit that the rules have changed.
Tell players that with the new information the league has received, it thinks it's best for the players that the rules have changed. It will go a long way to help players understand the league's position, because I think the league loses a little credibility when it fines players for some of the unavoidable hits that are taking place.
I'm still not sure if the studies that have been done so far give us enough information to determine the true effect these hits are having on players. But I have talked to players who have been involved with the studies, and they say the guys who are feeling the most long-term effects are the interior lineman, the guys who butt heads play in and play out.
I guess you could say the lineman are a little like boxers; they are getting jabbed on every play. It's not necessarily the guys taking the big hits, but the guys up front who are suffering the most trauma.
The NFL is a multibillion-dollar industry. If you want to make safety better, dump money into technology. Develop a helmet that's safer. I'd challenge every graduate school in the country and give $5 million to the winner for developing the best, safest helmet.
What can't be forgotten is that football is a rough game and that big hits are a part of being under football's big top. It's one of the reasons why it has become America's No. 1 sport.