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Hard Time

Crackdown on illegal hits has players on collision course with the NFL office

November 10, 2002|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

"The game is built on the premise that a good player becomes less good when he's hit so hard he doesn't want to be hit again."

-- George Halas, an NFL founder and longtime Chicago Bear coach, in an NFL Films interview

"You made no effort to tackle the player or break up the pass and instead engaged in what appears to be simply a gratuitous effort to punish your opponent after the pass to him has been deflected by your teammate."

-- NFL Director of Operations Gene Washington's memo informing San Diego Charger safety Rodney Harrison of his one-game suspension

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When the Chargers visited Oakland last year, Raider receiver Jerry Rice finished with eight catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns.

In the first quarter of this year's game on Oct. 20, Rice was in position to score again.

Rodney Harrison, the Chargers' hard-hitting safety, ensured it wouldn't happen. Thrusting himself toward Rice as Charger rookie Quentin Jammer converged, Harrison delivered a jarring hit right after Jammer's deflection.

Rice needed assistance to get up.

The collision had the obvious feel of a momentum change -- in the game and, perhaps, in the season.

Instead of taking a 7-0 lead, the Raiders failed to score. The Chargers kept Rice from repeating his dominant effort of 2001 and grabbed first place in the AFC West with a 27-21 overtime victory. The Raiders have lost two more games since.

"No question," Harrison said. "That changed the momentum."

A defining play. And, in the NFL's opinion, a flagrant rule-violating play.

Gene Washington, the league's disciplinarian, suspended Harrison for one game for the helmet-to-helmet hit that didn't draw a flag. In assessing the penalty, which cost Harrison $111,764 in salary, Washington said Harrison had repeatedly violated rules crafted by the NFL competition committee in 1995 to stop players from hitting opponents who are in a defenseless posture.

"You can't hit receivers who are trying to catch the ball in anything but a defenseless position," Harrison argued this week after practicing for today's confrontations with the St. Louis Rams' receiving tandem of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. "If a guy has his arms extended and his eyes on the ball, he's defenseless."

Washington also suspended Denver defensive back Kenoy Kennedy for one game after his devastating hit left Miami receiver Chris Chambers with a concussion.

Among the 19 fines Washington has levied for improper hits this season were a $75,000 bill to Dallas safety Darren Woodson, whose crushing hit on Seattle's Darrell Jackson caused the second-year receiver to suffer seizures and require an overnight hospital stay, and a $50,000 assessment to Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins, who delivered a season-ending hit to New York Giant receiver Ike Hilliard.

"[The fines] are deterrents," Washington said. "We have very few repeat offenders, with the exceptions of Rodney and Kennedy. The point is, we are charged to make the game as safe as it can be while recognizing it's a dangerous game.

"There's two sides to this. Jackson is probably out for the season. Hilliard is out, in the last year of his contract. What do we say to the player who might get paralyzed, 'We're sorry we were so lax on this'? Someone has to accept responsibility. That's what we do. The people who are competing need guidelines and those guidelines have to be enforced."

The league's hard line on hard hits has generated the most heated debate of the season.

Curtis Conway, a Charger receiver, said, "It's a big judgmental thing now. You see those guys [Dawkins and Hilliard] get hit and say, 'Dang, he didn't have to get hit that hard.' But it's football. I've been in the league 10 years. I know the defensive guys have to do things to discourage us from catching balls, just like we have to run by them to discourage them from playing bump-and-run on us."

Jack Tatum, the former Oakland defensive back whose hit resulted in the paralysis of former New England receiver Darryl Stingley in 1978, lamented, "It's turning into a push-and-shove league."

Last week, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued memos to all 32 head coaches, instructing them to reinforce to players the rules regarding helmet-to-helmet hits and other "dangerous or violent tactics ... that involve high potential for serious injury to opponents."

Sam Wyche, a head coach in the league for 12 years who led the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl, said the league's tough stance is "litigation motivated," adding that coaches have no other option than to oblige the commissioner.

By monitoring the collisions so vigorously, the NFL has raised questions about a possible hidden agenda. Are officials frightened about an on-field death, and the obvious legal and public relations repercussions? Is the league singling out those with hard-hitting reputations? Is it an attempt to increase scoring?

"This is strictly a matter of reacting to what's happening on the field," league spokesman Greg Aiello said.

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