Players, coaches see gray areas in NFL crackdown
ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Darrel Young of the Washington Redskins was all set to make a block during a punt return in a game last month against the Arizona Cardinals.
Instead, he held back — and the player he was going to block ended up making the tackle.
Not a good moment for Young, a second-year player trying to establish himself in the NFL. He says he got "yelled at" when the video was reviewed in the meeting room at Redskins Park.
"You can see it on film. I stopped. I just waited, and it kind of made me look soft," Young said. "People criticized me. But at the end of the day, if anyone wants to pay my fine, hey, I'll gladly go hit people."
Young was suddenly gun-shy because, a week earlier, he had been fined $15,000 for a hit in a similar situation on the New York Giants' Spencer Paysinger, a ruling that still has him and the Redskins baffled. Young says he didn't launch himself, led with his shoulder instead of his helmet, and no flag was thrown. Young appealed — $15,000 isn't small change in his $450,000 salary — and had the support of coach Mike Shanahan.
Last week, an email arrived with the bad news. The appeal was denied. Young said the league office claims he was guilty of "unnecessary roughness" because Paysinger didn't have a chance to make the tackle.
"They've seen something I didn't see," Young said.
That's a sentiment expressed often in the NFL these days. In its quest to make the game safer, the league tinkers with the rules every year. Hits that used to be legal are now outlawed. It all looks so simple in those videos sent to the teams during training camp, but even veterans of the game say there are gray areas that have them stumped.
"I don't know what's legal and not illegal," Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "I tell our guys to take your shot, try to keep your head up, and do it right, wrap your arms and don't drive him to the ground. I don't know what else you can say."
Haslett referenced the league's effort to eliminate hits on "defenseless" receivers, the type of collision that can be tough to avoid on a pass into double coverage over the middle.
"Half the time, those crossing routes, (when) the corners get called for the contact," Haslett said, "I'd fine the quarterback for a bad throw."
In some instances, players are being penalized for practicing what appears to be basic, fundamental football.
Green Bay linebacker Desmond Bishop was flagged for a hit on Carolina's Cam Newton in Week 2. It was basically a perfect wrap-him-up-and-drop him form tackle, the kind of play that so many people complain is lacking around the league. Coach Mike McCarthy even showed the video to his team the following week as an example of perfect technique.
So what did Bishop do wrong? He said the officials told him he erred because he attempted to lift Newton up during the tackle.
Teammates can't help but take note.
"Before, I was trying to get any chance I could to hit the quarterback," Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "But with the way they're calling fouls, if there's any gray area, I'll just pull off. Be safe."
That's exactly what the league wants. If there's a doubt, don't hit. If it's marginal, throw the flag.
"We want unnecessary hits that expose our players to risk out of the game," NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated Press. "So if a player is saying there's a play that in my mind may be an illegal hit if I carry it out, then we're OK with him refraining from that situation.
"What we tell our officials is, be aggressive with regard to protecting player safety. Particularly when we're talking about helmet-to-helmet hits and hits on defenseless players, it is absolutely true that we have instructed our officials to be aggressive at protecting against those types of hits. And if players have reservations in certain circumstances, then we're OK with them refraining because we hope that they will continue to have a sensitivity to the rules and then kind of know specifically what is and what is not allowed and then adjust their play accordingly and still play tough and physical and hard-nosed football."
Sometimes, the official's aggressiveness can cost a team dearly. Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher was flagged for what appeared to be a legit shoulder-on-shoulder tackle on Detroit's Tony Scheffler during a Monday night game. The Lions scored on the next play and went on win.
Urlacher wasn't fined — tacit acknowledgment from the league that the hit was legal. He won't lose any money, but he won't get his 15 yards back, either.
"When you're out there with 22 bodies flying around in real time, to an official it certainly looked like it was a hit with a shoulder to the head and neck area," Anderson said. "Now when you and I get the benefit of seeing it in slow motion from four or five different angles in HDTV, then we can go back and make the determination that, you know what, it was shoulder-and-shoulder.
"And it's OK if that's the result because once again what we've instructed our officials is player safety, particularly around the head and neck area, is so vital, to be aggressive and protecting in those instances."
Still, as Young's case pointed out, even the perspective of replay doesn't always produce an outcome that makes sense to everyone involved. Tennessee defensive end Jason Jones, who is appealing a $15,000 fine for a hit on Denver's Kyle Orton, said it's still "kind of vague" to him when a player becomes defenseless.
"I wish they could get a better definition of it," Jones said, "and a better fining system, too."
The NFL feels it has gone to great lengths to explain the rules. Part of the issue, as Anderson notes, is the difficulty in changing "a culture and a mindset that has heretofore been accepting of those kind of hits in the head-and-neck area. ... That's going to take some time."
"We would certainly acknowledge that one of our challenges is to continue to educate about the rules and continue to try to encourage players and coaches to keep referring back to the specifics of the rule book, keep referring back to the videos, keep referring back to the other training materials we try to send out to give them clarity," Anderson said.
"We think the rules are a lot clearer than they've ever been before. ... We try to be as definitive as we can with regard to what is and what is not illegal. I guess it's never going to be a perfect world, but we're trying awfully hard to get them as much education as we possibly can."
AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wisc.; Andrew Seligman in Lake Forest, Ill.; and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP