After Crackdown on Violent Hits, N.F.L. Has Quiet Weekend

Nothing is simple when there are as many moving parts and as many personal interests as there are in the , even when the stated goal is something that would seem like something everyone would applaud: player safety.

Players protect their turf; owners and coaches try to protect their teams’ ability to play effectively; the commissioner, under scrutiny on , tries to protect the players’ health and the league’s reputation.

In the first weekend of games , few people this side of New England safety Brandon Meriweather were being watched more closely than Harrison, that Harrison still maintains was unavoidable. (Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson, who was also fined for a high hit last week, did not play Sunday because of the concussion he sustained on his hit to Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson, which knocked out Jackson for the week as well.)

But Harrison, labeled a repeat offender by the N.F.L., also said he knows he is likely to be suspended the next time he makes such a hit, so he pulled up on one play rather than smashing into the ’ Ronnie Brown. Similar scenes happened in at least two other games: in the Buffalo-Baltimore game and in the Tennessee-Philadelphia game.

There were no penalties for improper hits to the head and a few examples, like Harrison’s, of players altering their play to conform to the kinder, slightly gentler N.F.L. Despite predictions that big pass plays would develop, there were no obvious examples Sunday.

Perhaps the impact on pass defenses won’t be known until the end of the season, when reception statistics from the first six weeks can be compared with the rest of the season’s. Certainly Meriweather and Harrison will be under a microscope again next week when their teams face productive passing attacks, the against the , the Steelers against the .

Harrison briefly compared the Brown play — Brown came across the middle with the ball, and started to slide as Harrison was about to hit him — with last week’s play against Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.

“I’m a pro athlete, true, I can adjust,” Harrison said. “But I can’t adjust to something at the last minute. That’s unreal.”

Sunday’s games presented a case study in how complicated it can be for the N.F.L. — there was no rules change last week, for all the overheated rhetoric. Before the games, there was quiet concern that the emphasis on helmet hits would put pressure on officials, and would inject officials’ decisions even more into the outcome of the game, where the N.F.L. would rather they not be.

“But they determine the outcome of the games all the time,” said Mike Pereira, the former chief of N.F.L. officiating who is now the rules analyst for Fox Sports.

After watching most of the Sunday games, Pereira said he saw no difference in the way the games were called. There were no close calls — no hits to the head that were of questionable legitimacy, no flags thrown that shouldn’t have been.

“This whole uproar has been over three plays,” Pereira said. “There has certainly not been a Brandon Meriweather-type hit. It’s probably going to settle down. It wasn’t an epidemic, but the message was sent: don’t let it start being that.”

Pereira said he did not think the new emphasis put additional pressure on game officials. But he does worry that the N.F.L.’s mention in its edict last week that ejection for egregious high hits is an option — officials have always had that power — creates a difficult decision for officials. Pereira proposes a solution that may open another source for debate: using instant replay to determine if a hit is worthy of an ejection.

“Ejection is a huge penalty; it’s worse than a suspension,” Pereira said. “You force the team to play one man down. You suspend somebody, you notify them by Tuesday and the team gets a chance to adjust. I think they’ll still be somewhat conservative when it comes to ejections. If they want to eject, it’s only fair to let them consider going to the replay monitor to review the play to be sure there is contact to the head or neck and to make sure they have the right guy.”

Receivers may have more immediate concerns about the crackdown. In its broadcast of the Steelers-Dolphins game, CBS focused on one hit to Steelers receiver by Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith. As Ward went up to try to catch a pass, Smith had a clear shot to hit Ward high. Instead, Smith bent his knees and put his shoulder into Ward’s knees to bring him down.

Ward has taken plenty of hard hits in his career, and he did not complain about the low hit. “We know what we signed up for,” he said.

But there are plenty of players who would take their chances with a concussion over a blown-out knee. Last week Giants safety Deon Grant made the point that a player who sustained a concussion because of a high hit could contemplate the next week whether he wanted to continue playing football. A player who sustained a serious knee injury because of a low hit, on the other hand, had already had that decision made for him.

That player’s season could be over. But this debate surely is not.

More Parity Patrol

If it was not enough that Cleveland — with a rookie quarterback and just one victory entering the weekend — beat the defending champions in New Orleans, or that Oakland, which scored just 9 points against the struggling , rolled up 38 points in 22 minutes against the , consider that the ultimate sign of competitive balance is how many close games are played. Six of the 13 Sunday games were decided by 3 points or fewer. Thirty percent of N.F.L. games this season have been decided by that heartburn-inducing margin, putting the N.F.L. ahead of the pace for 1997, the season that featured the most close games, when 27.9 percent of all games were decided by a field goal or less.

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