The hysteria that has taken full flower over helmet-to-helmet hits in the last four days was bound to arrive at some point. A definitive study about the effects of concussions, a player dying on the field. Something was going to bring it about the madness we're seeing now. The speed with which it came however was mindblowing even to hardcore football fans.
Somehow, by virtue of two injury-inducing but absolutely not "dirty" hits and a couple quotes, one of which was simply bad on his part and the other taken out of context by the press, James Harrison has emerged as the undeserved villain in what will be a pivotal issue for the remainder of the season.
You can debate the merits of whether Harrison should have been fined. It really doesn't matter. It was going to happen regardless. Just be happy it was an outsize fine and not a suspension, as it might have been. As they did with the Roethlisberger suspension, members of the media simply willed it into happening through sheer power of repetition and a condemning tone. If Roger Goodell has proven anything with his actions of the last few days, it's not as much that he's interested in protecting the health of his receivers as he is preserving the image of the shield once the NFL is cast in a distasteful light.
And of course it was only injured receivers and a tight end who earned defensive players sanctions. The Cribbs hit by Harrison was determined legal. Hell, this helmet shot by a Jags player on Chris Johnson on Monday night generated no controversy at all. What does mean? Is it just another furtive way to make it more difficult for defenses to deal with the passing game? That would be an especially odd approach given that pass plays were the cause of the gravest injury this past weekend. On one hand, changing the helmet-to-helmet rules for a runner would mean exactly that - changing a rule, whereas the league can say that a tougher stance on protecting receivers is merely the more strict enforcement of regulations that are already in place.
Nevertheless, at best this strikes me as window dressing and at worst a poor sop to the players union to ease the passing of a future 18-game NFL schedule. "Look," the owners can say. "We want more games but we're willing to protect a few players from head injuries even if it means a higher incidence of leg and knee injuries due to defenders having to go low on receivers."
God, this whole situation sucks.
Back to Harrison. Yes, both of his contentious hits unfortunately led to injuries, but in each case, it was the action of the target, not a deliberate effort by Harrison, that led to the injury. KSK commenter Potsie offered a nice breakdown on each play:
Harrison on Cribbs — If Cribbs sheds the LaMarr Woodley tackle, Harrison plows through his midsection at full speed like a freight train, likely knocking the wind out of him, possibly causing a fumble, and he’s praised for a spectacular hit. Woodley’s tackle slows Cribbs up and Harrison is already moving at top speed to hit him in the midsection, which just so happens to be where Cribbs’ head stopped.
Harrison on M.M. — Scared receiver + rookie quarterback. QB led the WR into a linebacker, and the linebacker was making sure the WR didn’t get a clean catch. Harrison pushes out with his hands, like any man who can bench 500 pounds would do, to apply extra force on the hit to cause an incompletion. If the WR doesn’t duck to try and avoid contact, Harrison again splits him down the middle.
I agree completely with both of those assessments, but the constant superslow replays being shown on ESPN and other sports networks don't give any of that context. They only show Harrison's helmet hitting Cribbs' and Massaquoi laying anguished on the grass. That's enough for people to break out memories of Harrison roughing up Aaron Francisco in Super Bowl XLIII and pronounce Silverback a dirty player.
As for Browns fans harping about how their players were taken out by dirty play, I would argue that T.J. Ward's helmet shot on Rashard Mendenhall was more dirtier than either of Harrison's hits. Whereas Harrison had to rush to get to Cribbs from behind and jar the bar from Massaquoi at the last second, Ward saw the Mendenhall run coming to the right side the entire way. Instead of making a standard tackle, he leaves his feet helmet first at Mendy's head.
Are the announcers making a stink? No, that's a blatantly dirty shot and they're lauding him for it. Of course, in this climate of concern over injury, it's not so much form as result. Has Mendenhall done down with a concussion, it's likely that Ward would be among those demonized this week. Which is what makes this discussion all the more maddening.
Ward, of course, was the guy who knocked out Jordan Shipley weeks ago on a hit cheaper than any this past weekend save only Brandon Meriweather's cheap shot on Todd Heap. Meriweather was levied a less serious fine than Harrison. The inane reasoning being that Harrison has been fined before and that he had multiple "devastating" hits on Sunday. How that justifies Harrison getting worse sanctions than a guy who almost certainly tried to injure a player who was already being taken to the ground with the ball deflected is beyond me.
As for Silverback's subsequent comments, I'm really irritated how his comments about causing pain to opposing players was distorted by the press. He explained clearly that his aim is not to injure, but to shake people up in a non debilitating way that makes them second guess whether they want to come over the middle again. Ask any defensive player in the NFL and you're going to get the same response. I guarantee it.
The following retirement talk is unfortunate and more than a little embarrassing. I understand the underlying frustration on Silverback's part, but this is a childish way to respond to it. Harrison has to know especially after the pain comments and the fine itself that he doesn't have friends in the media. They'll gladly jump on any slip of the tongue. Sure, his agent claims his retirement talk is serious, though I have very serious doubts about that. Mike Tomlin has already since said that Harrison will be back at practice Thursday after being excused Wednesday. Good, the sooner this latest drama can be put behind the team, the better.