Safety first? Why don't I believe you, NFL?


Safety first? Why don't I believe you, NFL?

By Rich Levine

So let me get a few things straight:

1. The NFL players and owners currently despise each other.

Right? Theyve spent the last month sniping back and forth, both privately and publicly, as each one believes there are billions of dollars on the table that belongs in their respective pockets. At the same time, neither side feels that theyre being treated fairly. Each thinks the other doesnt appreciate all they do for the league, or the burdens brought on by their great responsibility. In some cases, the battle has clearly gone beyond business and into the personal realm. Brady vs. Kraft. Manning vs. Irsay. Brees vs. Benson. Randy Moss vs. Woody in Nashville. Jerry Richardson vs. the World. People are pissed.

2. One of the bigger and broader issues is the 18-game schedule. Whether or not its still in the mix for the current negotiations is unclear, but whats not is the fact that the owners definitely want 18 games. Thats their ideal. And to the players, thats a clear sign that the owners dont actually care about their safety. Basically, the two ideals cant co-exist. You cant want the 18-game schedule, and also want what's best for the players. Its one or the other, yet the owners continue to sit on the fence. Its like going on a date with a girl who says she's in PETA but shows up wearing rabbit fur boots, or walking into a bar and seeing a guy in a Teixiera jersey rooting for the Sox. They cant have it both ways. But even if they wont choose publicly, the owners have made their 18-game priority clear.

And that leads to . . .

3. Tuesday in New Orleans, the owners voted on a series of rule changes that directly, and in some cases drastically, affected the players theyre currently fighting with. The major change is a decision to move the kick-off up five yards to the 35-yard line, while at the same time prohibiting guys on coverage to get more than a five-yard running start.

It will create more touchbacks, and thus (along with the slower start) decrease the chance of an injury. But it will also cheapen the importance of kickoff specialists around the league. It will affect careers. It will change the game.

The owners' reasoning?

Its safer. Its in the players best interests.

And were just supposed to believe them.

If thats life in this dysfunctional NFL, then Im having a hard time grasping it.

To me, right now, the players and owners are a couple who has an explosive, blowout fight in front of all their friends. It gets ugly. Real ugly. Theres yelling, swearing, throwing of heels. They air all their dirty laundry, for everyone to hear. They bring up old fights. Ex-boyfriends. Ex-girlfriends. Weird sex stuff. Everything. And then leave in separate cabs.

Then, one week later, you bump into the guy and he suddenly starts talking about their relationship like nothing ever happened. Hes talking about the trip they just planned for the summer, and how theyre maybe even thinking about moving in, and youre just sitting their blown out of your mind. Were just going to forget about that? Pretend it never happened?

It did happen. Its still happening.

The owners and players are still at each others throats, and its only about to get worse which brings the motivation behind the new crusade to save the NFL one touchback at a time into question.

First of all, because, in the long run, Im not sure how much its actually going to protect the players. Its not like guys wont still be running and crashing into each other on every kick. Theyre never going to assume its a touchback. Every kick will be a fight, with collisions and hard hits. These will still be the hungriest guys on the field; the ones who have the most to lose. Yeah, maybe theyll go a little slower with the lack of a running start. Maybe the touchbacks prevent some solid hits. But is that really worth ruining one of the most exciting and game-breaking aspects of your game?

I dont think so. And thats not my style. Im usually on the other side of the NFL safety argument.

For instance, back in October when Brandon Meriweather was in the news for a different kind of head hunting, when the league was rallying against helmet-to-helmet hits and players turned talking heads like Mark Schlereth spent days screaming out panicked obituaries for the sanctity of the NFL I was entirely on board.

"You can't take the NFL and what we do and eliminate contact!" yelled Schlereth, repeatedly. "The game of football is about going out there and separating the man from the ball!

His points were difficult to argue, mostly because they made no sense. The league wasnt eliminating contact; it was eliminating illegal contact. The game of football was still about going out there and separating the man from the ball . . . just not going out and separating the man from any semblance of a normal post-football life.

Schlereth, and players like him, whined about how tough the league was back in their day, but reality was that those guys werent actually tougher; the world was just more ignorant. By no fault of their own, players of that generation, and those around them (family, coaches) didnt understand the long-term damage being levied on their minds and bodies, so they just went about their bone-headed business, soaking up the glory and then suffering through retirement. Were they tough for doing so? Of course. But they also just didnt know any better. Schlereth's rants were the equivalent of a 30-year, pack-a-day smoker hopping on TV and saying: What? Stop smoking? Just because it might kill you?! But look at me, Im alive!

Anyway, that was a problem, and last year was an important step in fixing it.

That problem was real, and so was the impact of the new legislation. Players started paying attention, and those types of hits will decrease.

But this new rule just doesnt seem worth the mess. Youre taking a way a huge part of the game where you didnt have to. An illegal hit on the special teams is still an illegal hit; theyre still under the same jurisdiction. There are other ways to police the dangerous hits. Sure, the NFL is a slightly safer place, but at what cost? Whats it really worth?

Shortly after the decision was announced I was on Twitter and came across this Tweet by Cleveland kick returner Josh Cribbs, one of the guys most affected by the ruling:

@JoshCribbs16: NFL rule changes are BS... U not making the game safer u messing a great sport, trynna hide behind safety just to add 2 games...smh

It makes you wonder if this all really does come back to the NFL dream of an 18-game schedule. If, in the end, the owners will ever be satisfied without it.

Or if they'll just keep finding ways to make the game a little safer until they can justify making it a lot more dangerous.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?


QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?


25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.


We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.