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Players Learning to Tackle Cleanly

November 03, 2002|Dave Goldberg | Associated Press

NEW YORK — John Lynch, Tampa Bay's perennial Pro Bowl safety, was fined early in his career for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

"That's the way I was taught," Lynch complained to Rich McKay, the team's general manager.

"Then learn the other way," replied McKay, who as co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee had a major role in developing the league's safety policy.

In a season when fines and suspensions for dangerous hits are being emphasized as never before, Lynch is one safety who hasn't been disciplined.

But the crackdown on unsafe hits is making many defenders unlearn what they've been taught since childhood: turn themselves into guided missiles heading straight for receivers.

Disciplinary action for overzealous hitting isn't up much this season, with 18 fines or suspensions compared to 16 a year ago. But the league re-emphasized its get-tough policies at its meetings in New York this week after two helmet hits in high-profile games.

It fined Dallas safety Darren Woodson $75,000 for a hit on Seattle wide receiver Darrell Jackson last Sunday in the game in which Emmitt Smith passed Walter Payton for the career rushing record. Jackson later had a seizure in the locker room and was hospitalized overnight.

The next night, Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins leveled New York Giants receiver Ike Hilliard. Hilliard separated a shoulder and is out for the season. Dawkins was fined $50,000.

"The players understand that a violent hit helmet-to-helmet is going to cost some money and potentially cost the team a penalty," says Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher, a former NFL defensive back who with McKay is co-chairman of the competition committee.

"Beyond that you have to play the game. You cannot back down and not play the game the way it's supposed to be played, It's supposed to be played from a physical perspective."

That's the point made by some players who have been disciplined, notably San Diego's Rodney Harrison, one of the top safeties in the game and one of the most disciplined players ever.

Harrison has 11 infractions dating to 1997, with fines and lost pay for suspensions totaling $229,264. That includes the $111,764 he will lose after being suspended for this week's game with the New York Jets for a hit on Oakland's Jerry Rice.

"It could be completely unintentional," Harrison says. "All of a sudden, right before a receiver catches the ball, he may see you out of his peripheral vision and his natural reaction is to tuck to protect himself. So naturally he brings his head down. And if he brings his head down, guys can bump helmets. It may be completely unintentional."

There are team officials who agree.

Matt Millen, president of the Detroit Lions, played 12 seasons as a linebacker for the Raiders, 49ers and Redskins, and says he was taught from age 8 to lead with his head going after a receiver.

"It's instinct and momentum," he says. "You don't think. You react."

Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, said that when he played at Arkansas in the early 1960s he was taught the same thing.

Jones changed his tune within 48 hours this week.

On Sunday, after the 15-yard penalty on Woodson helped move Seattle into position to kick the winning field goal against his Cowboys, Jones complained the call was a bad one. That was before he knew of Jackson's injury.

Two days later, after a stern talk from commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the owners' meetings, Jones was saying something else.

"I realize that safety is primary," he said. "It's hard for a defensive back not to hit a defenseless receiver, but it has to be done."

Denver safety Kenoy Kennedy, who has been fined twice and suspended once for hits this season, suggests that at the same time the NFL is cracking down, hard hits are being glamorized on television.

"That's how the guys in the past made their living, laying guys out," Kennedy says.

"You don't want to see your counterparts like that, lying on the ground helpless. But even though you get suspended, they'll still be on highlight films. They put them on NFL crunch tapes. It's kind of confusing. You want to go out and be aggressive. Football is an aggressive sport.

"I'm not saying they're taking all the fun out of it, but they are watching out for the safety of the guys."

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