On first-and-goal from the four-yard line late in the second quarter on Sunday, Rams QB Sam Bradford felt pressure and took off to his left. Before he could turn the corner, Chargers linebacker Kevin Burnett swooped in and lunged for the tackle. Their heads collided with such force that Bradford's helmet was knocked to the turf. Neither player was hurt, but the same could not be said of a number of players who were forced to leave games last week because of dangerous collisions, the most violent involving Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver. Steelers linebacker James Harrison KO'd two Browns—Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi—roughly seven minutes apart and was not flagged for either hit.
The league has gone to great lengths to address hits on receivers. In 2007 it notified teams that officials would eject players for flagrant helmet-to-helmet hits, and in each of the past two off-seasons it has adopted new rules or emphasized existing ones in hopes of eliminating head shots. Still, there were at least six such incidents on Sunday.
One reason is the speed of the game. Defenders are processing reams of data in the blink of an eye: Can the receiver make the catch? If so, can the ball be dislodged? Should I tackle high or low? Where's the defensive help? What is my coach going to say if I don't make a play?
Football is inherently violent, and intimidation is a key component in the game. NBC analyst Rodney Harrison was a fierce striker during his 15 seasons as an NFL safety. That approach cost him more than $200,000 in fines, but he said on Sunday that he used to set aside $50,000 before the start of a season to pay fines and maintain his tough-guy reputation. It wasn't until the league suspended him for a game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jerry Rice that he changed his approach.
Fear of suspension got through to Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson. He'd been fined multiple times for flagrant hits and in 2008 was warned that another infraction could result in a one-game suspension and cost him $50,000. After he was flagged in '09 for unnecessary roughness after a hit on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Wilson twisted in the wind for several days before learning he'd be fined $10,000 but not suspended. The experience changed him.
"I don't want my teammates to be without me," Wilson says, "but it's hard. You're either going to let [receivers] catch it and take a step to see what's going on, or there's going to be a collision. I believe a lot of the calls are based on the violence of the hit and not on whether it was illegal. I try to use clear judgment, but a lot of those collisions are unavoidable. You only have that split second to determine what to do."
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Photograph by ERIC HARTLINE/US PRESSWIRE
SCARY Philly's Jackson (10) was out cold after the shot from Robinson.