It is the play of the game whether or not your team wins. The safety or cornerback launches himself at the receiver who doesn’t see him. Sometimes the receiver’s hearing or instinct allows him to steel himself for the blow; sometimes it doesn’t. The resulting collision is violent and loud, and the crowd makes an “Ooooof!!!” in unison.
Sometimes the receiver gets up; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes the defensive back gets up; sometimes he doesn’t.
Sometimes neither gets up. It is the core seemingly essential to the NFL’s popularity, the reason we watch: the big hit.
Following single blows, however, at least once the receiver (Darryl Stingley) became a paraplegic, and at least once the receiver never suited up again (Michael Irvin). Most of the rest merely “had their bells rung,” no big deal in the manly world of football…until now.
This season, at last, the NFL has begun to pay real attention to players with concussions, after the accumulated weight of medical opinion finally had league officials buried up to their noses. They were having trouble breathing. Oh, there were changes a several years back, then again in ’09 (effectively, “and/or other symptoms” beyond unconsciousness stopped a return to play after a bell-ringing), but the caution seems to have been ramped up a bit more this season. Early in the calendar year the “no launching rule” was announced although it should have been issued with an asterisk and note that read: “if we clearly see you do it, and yes, we know it’ll still happen,” but the notions introduced weren’t entirely bad. No longer could a player strap on the Wile E. Coyote foot springs to propel a helmeted head, shoulder, or forearm into any other player’s helmeted head (not just a quarterback’s head). Most recently, an independent neurologist’s review was added to the hurdles a concussed player has to clear before playing again.
That “independent” part is sure to become the subject of discussion, but more players than ever seem to be leaving NFL games, and not returning, sometimes for more than a week.
This is a good thing and here’s the reason why: it often seems as though the most violent NFL collisions take place between “the little guys” out there on the gridiron because they often are, relatively speaking, the smallest players. But consider the following physical fact: Muhammad Ali stood 6’3″ and fought at weights between 186 and 236 pounds during his career. When in fine condition, that was 210 or so. Now consider these current NFL defensive backs’ dimensions: Troy Polamalu – 5′ 10″, 207 pounds; Charles Woodson – 6′ 1″, 202 pounds; Dunta Robinson – 5′ 10″, 182 pounds. (Robinson is included for knocking himself and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson out of action for at least three-quarters of their game played October 17th, and likely longer, with a quite memorable launch. Neither Polamalu nor Woodson has a reputation as a headhunter; they are included as representative in size.)
Get it? When you see a cornerback or safety launch himself at a ball carrier, it’s less a matter of little guys mixing it up, and more like putting a superbly conditioned heavyweight or cruiserweight boxer in plastic armor, then giving him a running start at someone else who doesn’t see him coming. When he reaches that oblivious person, he is then allowed to knock him in oblivion with a blow far more powerful than any heavyweight’s punch.
Maybe there ought to be a second neurologist’s review.
The upside of this matter now? As of late last week, on the day before the NFL decided that launching can now earn a player a suspension, Jackson’s Eagles alone had “lost” six players due to concussions, meaning they were protected for the times specified here: Antonio Dixon (several days in training camp), Kevin Kolb (one week plus part of the game injured in), Stewart Bradley (one week+), Riley Cooper (two weeks+), Asante Samuel (one week+), and Jackson (one week+ and counting).
However, your favorite player being off the field may, paradoxically, keep him on it longer.
“Boxing Weight Classes.” Ringside by Gus. 18 October 2010.
“Charles Woodson,” “Dunta Robinson,” and “Troy Polamalu.” NFL.com. 18 October 2010.
Duffy, Paula. “New NFL Rules Hit Concussions Where They Live.” The Huffington Post. 25 March 2010.
Freeman, Mike. “Knocked for a loop: Concussion confusion still rules.” CBS News.com. 13 September 2009.
“Muhammad Ali Biography and Fight Record.” Boxing-Memorabilia.com. 18 October 2010.
“New NFL Concussion Rules Take Effect.” CBS News.com. 3 December 2009.
Tamari, Jonathan. “Jackson escapes with concussion.” The Philadelphia Inquirer 18 October 2010: E15.