NFL playoffs offer test of focus on illegal hits
As a player in the 1980s and '90s, Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott was known for - and roundly praised for - jarring tackles. As a newly appointed co-chairman of the NFL Player Safety Advisory Panel, he's looking forward to watching this year's playoffs and keeping tabs on what he calls ''good hits.''
After a regular season in which unnecessary roughness penalties rose from 2009, and there was so much attention on concussions and dangerous hits - including elevated fines and threats of suspensions - the first glimpse of how that all will play out in the playoffs comes Saturday and Sunday during wild-card weekend.
Lott figures players have had sufficient time to adjust to the NFL's increased emphasis. He also figures players should - and can - adjust.
''You're still going to play hard. You're still going to hit hard. You're still going to find a way to get to the ball. Great players will adapt, and you want to respect the integrity of the game. 'Great' trumps fines. 'Great' trumps doing it wrong. You can't be 'great' if you're doing it wrong,'' Lott said in a telephone interview. ''That's the most important thing: If the rules change, and you want to be 'great,' you're going to learn how to adapt; you're not going to learn how to complain.''
According to STATS LLC, there were 184 unnecessary roughness penalties called this season, a 14 percent increase from 162 in the 2009 regular season - and the highest total since at least 1991; that's how far back STATS LLC's penalty information goes. In 2010, there were 0.719 unnecessary roughness calls per game, which also is the highest average in the span for which data were available; the average was 0.713 in 1998, when there were fewer teams and games.
There also was a jump in roughing-the-passer calls this season, from 72 in 2009 to 91 in 2010, STATS LLC said.
The NFL's own data, provided to the AP, include various penalties the league considers to fall under the unnecessary roughness ''umbrella,'' including leg whips, roll blocks and face-mask calls. The NFL's numbers show a smaller increase - of 8 percent, from 220 such calls in 2009, to 238 in 2010.
Linebacker David Harris, whose New York Jets play at Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night, said his team did not need to talk about making sure to keep hits clean.
''We didn't spend one second on it. It should be natural, knowing how to tackle. It's never been a problem for us,'' Harris said.
''The league is all about player safety, and they want (officials) to be stricter,'' he added. ''We just have to be smart about it.''
Per-game unnecessary roughness penalties have gone up from the regular season to the postseason in recent years, according to STATS LLC data. In 2009, for example, there were an average of 0.6 such calls in the regular season, compared to 1.2 in the postseason; in 2008, the 0.7 regular-season average was followed by a 1.1 postseason average.
''It's playoff football. Guys are coming; they're coming hard,'' Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz said. ''You may risk fines you wouldn't risk in the regular season. That's just something you have to understand when you play.''
Lott couldn't account for why such calls might increase in the postseason. He thinks officials call games consistently, and players play consistently - whether it's Week 1 or the Super Bowl.
Current players agree.
''You can't go out there thinking about fines or penalties or anything like that. You've got to play on edge and make the play. No one's intentionally trying to hit anybody in the head or do anything malicious or anything like that. It's just a part of the game,'' Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Darryl Tapp said. ''Sometimes you're in that situation, but, uh, you got to play 'controlled reckless.'''
In the leadup to his team's game against the visiting Green Bay Packers on Sunday, one of the key storylines is a play from their regular-season meeting in Week 1: In the second quarter, Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews tackled Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb from behind and drove him into the turf.
Kolb left at halftime with a concussion; Michael Vick replaced him and wound up putting together a superb comeback season.
Indeed, that first Sunday signaled that head injuries would be a major thread through the season. Another starting QB, Matt Moore of the Carolina Panthers, left his team's game that day with a concussion, as did New York Giants tight end Kevin Boss.
It all reached a crescendo on one Sunday: Oct. 17, when a series of particularly frightening collisions across the league drew widespread attention - and action from the league.
Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and Falcons defensive back Dunta Robinson were knocked out of their game with concussions after Robinson launched himself head-first at Jackson. Ravens tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather. Steelers linebacker James Harrison sidelined two Browns players with jarring hits that resulted in head injuries.
In the next couple of days, the NFL threatened suspensions for illegal hits - although no player was punished that way during the regular season - and handed out fines of tens of thousands of dollars. Later, the league reduced the fines given to Harrison, Robinson and Meriweather for their Oct. 17 hits.
The league also sent out various warnings to try to get players to focus on limiting dangerous collisions: a memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell, a video showing can- and can't-dos, lists sent to coaches letting them know which players have multiple unnecessary roughness penalties.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said there was no need to place a special emphasis on illegal hits while preparing for this weekend.
''You go out and play the game the way you've been playing it. I think that the league has gotten their point across, what they wanted to, in terms of making guys conscious,'' Capers said. ''I don't think that'll change one bit in the playoffs.''
AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner in Florham Park, N.J., and Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia, and AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis., and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.