Notebook > Sports
Michael Montes/AI Wire/Newscom

Hit or miss

Sports | The NFL's quest for safety clashes head-on with the culture of the almighty hit

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

In 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged into a single league, the average player weighed about 220 pounds. Four decades later, today's average player tips the scale at about 250 pounds-and he's stronger and faster. Such developments in size and athleticism have produced an explosive game, one in which player-to-player collisions often match the force of car crashes-with attendant injuries, too.

After decades of highlighting and celebrating such hits, the league got religion on one especially concussive weekend this fall. On Oct. 17, half a dozen players suffered head injuries from vicious on-field collisions. And the following Monday night, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard (above) added his name to the list when he suffered a concussion during the second quarter of a loss to the Titans.

The league sprang to action, announcing new stricter enforcement of existing rules on blows to the head and neck area. Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations, said suspensions would now accompany fines for illegal hits, even if unintentional: "It's hard for us to get inside a guy's head and figure what his intentions were. If it's an illegal hit under the rules, then you're going to be held accountable."

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The rules forbid blows to the head or neck of a "defenseless" player, that is, a player not prepared for contact, such as a wide receiver looking to catch a pass or a quarterback looking to throw downfield. Any player seeking to advance the ball via the run is not included in the "defenseless" class as he is expected to be prepared for contact and even allowed to lower his head.

Still, questions abound as to how tighter enforcement of tackling rules will impact the game. Many defensive backs relish the opportunity to deliver crushing hits on wide receivers just as the ball arrives. And many pass rushers are often left with little choice but to collide with the quarterback's head as they lunge into the backfield seeking to tip pass attempts.

In the past, some players have considered fines for such plays simply the cost of doing business. Former defensive back Rodney Harrison, now a broadcaster with NBC, recently admitted setting aside $50,000 per year for big-hit fines. He was undeterred, until the league finally issued a single-game suspension. Harrison now believes suspensions are the only means by which the league will alter player behavior.

The present style of tackling is no mere trifle. Watching 250-pound gazelles launch into one another at full speed is central to the NFL's appeal. And the demand for such explosive displays will almost certainly produce their continued supply.

Pitch perfect

Major League Baseball's steroid-laced era of the homerun is over. And with its passing comes the return of pitching dominance. This year's playoffs have featured such supremacy from the mound, none greater than the no-hitter from Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series. The last pitcher to achieve a postseason no-hitter was Don Larson, who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers is also dominating from the mound. In this year's playoffs, Lee has pitched 24 innings, allowed just two runs, and struck out 34 batters in collecting three victories. Adding in his postseason performance of a year ago, the lefty gunslinger now boasts a playoff record of 7-0 with 67 strikeouts and just seven walks.


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