The NFL appears to be stuck at a philosophical crossroads, and Sean Payton is the most recent member of the gridiron ranks to pay the price of the league’s indecision.
On Mar. 21, the New Orleans Saints’ head coach was handed a one-year suspension for his role in a system of player incentives that awarded defensive team members for injuring opposing players or knocking them out of a game.
The decision apparently shocked the Saints’ bench boss, and stands as yet another fire and brimstone example of league commissioner Roger Goodell’s resolve to enforce discipline in defense of the United States’ most beloved game.
Goodell has made no bones about his desire to see an end to what he and others would term “cheap shots” in the NFL. Of course, if I were heading an organization that was being forced to wade across the legal minefield of the current concussion panic, I would probably be sermonizing about physicality as well.
Concern over the neurological ramifications of head hits runs the gamut of North American sports, and is hardly an issue unique or confined to the gridiron game. But of all of the major sporting organizations on the continent, the NFL has been the most proactive and vocal in its commitment to the brain health of its players.
In the summer of 2010, the league launched its first major initiative to combat headshots, bringing about a slew of rule changes designed to protect “defenseless players” from the unsuspecting onslaught of bloodthirsty defenders.
The health-first measures yielded several early results, dealing out suspensions to notorious headhunters and first-time offenders alike in their opening season of operation.
Perhaps the most heavily penalized of all was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, caught out on multiple occasions by the “defenseless player” clause.
However, while many lauded the effect of the new rules, others were less certain of the direction they implied for the NFL game.
Harrison’s own reaction to his recurrent suspensions offers an interesting insight into the quandary in which today’s professional football players are increasingly finding themselves.
The emblematic Steeler greeted his disciplinary setbacks with simple confusion, uncertainty over how he was supposed to be playing the game he had been practicing for so many years. Because you see, Harrison and so many other gridiron giants of his generation were raised as athletes with one very simple concept in mind.
For defensive stalwarts, the message has traditionally been that violence is the goal, that aggression is the only acceptable attitude. The health of the receiver you were lining up for that bone-crunching hit was not your concern.
Your only mission was to make exceptionally clear that no extra inch of field turf was to be gained on this given play, and that if the bad guys’ quarterback was going to throw that crossing route, his intended target would be coming back to the huddle with Ikea instructions.
There is, after all, a reason why the term “hospital pass” came into being.
The problem is that the current crop of concussion-related measures flies in the face of this time-honoured mentality. It’s no longer acceptable according to Goodell for a defender to blindly launch himself into a tackle.
Instead, he must take into consideration the placement of his hit, and the neurological impact that his effort could have on the poor sap receiving his intended violence.
The question is whether such a thoughtful approach to tackling is feasible or desired in a game that only gets faster and more physical in nature with every passing year.
Each season sees the entry into the nationally televised Royal Rumble that is the NFL of ever more imposing and gifted athletes, capable both of incredible feats of skill and brutality.
The league depends on this trend to continue for its financial benefit. Who would willingly pay for a product that was being forcibly diluted by regulation? The issue for NFL execs and fans alike is that such dilution could be the effect of rule changes that curb the athleticism of players.
Perhaps more importantly, the bounty scandal suffered by the Saints and paid for by Sean Payton (reportedly to the tune of a $7 million yearly salary) indicates that the very attitude of the league’s coaches and performers stands in stark opposition to the health-first approach of Goodell and the more legally minded among the NFL elite.
While the New Orleans franchise fell on proverbial sword, many sources within the league hint that bounty schemes similar to that punished in the Saints’ case are a dime a dozen in the NFL.
Quite frankly, injury and blind violence are defensively profitable. A defensive coordinator who advocates caution and consideration would not only find themselves quickly scanning classified sections, but would likely be openly ridiculed by those around them.
In a disciplinary sense, the harsh action at Payton’s expense also reveals a slightly disturbing prioritization on the part of Goodell and the NFL front office.
Where the New Orleans bench boss must forfeit a year’s wages and control of his squad for the duration of the 2012-13 season in recompense for an internal policy that indirectly endangered opposition players, another infraction that posed a more fundamental competitive problem went relatively unpunished.
The scandal in question is the Spygate incident of 2007, which saw the New England Patriots punished for illegal video surveillance of the New York Jets (and allegedly many other teams) during a regular season game.
Despite the immense tactical unfairness that stealing signs represents, the Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick escaped without punishment near the scale of Payton’s. The coach himself was fined $500,000, the team $250,000 and the Patriots docked a first round selection in the next year’s draft.
New England’s coaching staff was not blown apart, its management team not severely hampered in its ability to run the football team. Money was exacted and a relatively useless draft pick confiscated.
This seems to indicate that transgressions such as Belichick’s are more readily accepted by the NFL’s head office. Gain an unfair competitive edge and the league will slap you on the wrist. But encourage a widely accepted attitude of aggressiveness within your team with the incentive of cash and find yourself without a job for a year.
Don’t get me wrong. Bounty systems are a gruesome business that appeal to the worst elements in football, and should not be tolerated. But to ignore the fundamental aggression that breeds such schemes is to turn a blind eye to the very nature of football.