FOLLOWING WEEK 5 of the NFL season, Merton Hanks sat in his office on the fifth floor of the league's Park Avenue headquarters and watched 39 "potential violations" on the monitor on his wall. In this age of bounties and brain shadows, Hanks, the league's largely invisible vice president of football operations, determines whether players should be fined for their on-field behavior and how much. He is football's equivalent of a plane crash investigator, the quiet expert in wreckage, assigned the impossible task of preventing the inevitable. There will always be gravity; planes will always fall out of the sky.
That Sunday, Steelers free safety Ryan Clark had played his usual role of missile. Eagles tight end Brent Celek was his target. Hanks leans closer to his monitor; he has turned down the sound, because he doesn't care what Troy Aikman, for instance, thinks of the hit. He is watching in a vacuum when Celek catches a pass and is snagged by two Pittsburgh linebackers. That's when Clark appears on the right-hand side of the screen, flying helmet-first toward Celek's head. To me, it's the definition of a terrible hit. Celek looks doomed -- both of his feet have been lifted off the grass by the linebackers -- and the on-field officials in fact rule that he was no longer making forward progress. That makes Celek defenseless, which makes the hit illegal (Clark drew a 15-yard flag as well as Aikman's on-air ire, it turns out), which means he's due a big fine. That's the simple math of prevention.
Except that Hanks doesn't see the world so simply. A former Super Bowl-winning safety for the 49ers, beloved by fans for his celebratory "chicken dance," he makes sure to go to a game each Sunday. The 44-year-old stands on the sideline to feel that familiar meanness rise in his chest. "You don't want a saint in this job," he says. "You want a reformed sinner." He knows how it felt to get that telltale FedEx envelope in his locker.
While Hanks spends his Sundays breathing in football, dozens of men sit in a bunkerlike room down the hall from his office. On banks of monitors, the NFL's officiating department watches every minute of every game, making a list of plays for Hanks to review. Here's their clinical description of the Clark hit: PIT 25 (Ryan Clark) delivers helmet-to-helmet hit on PHI 87 whose FP is obviously stopped. Fines for most fouls are set, but Hanks has the discretion to raise or lower the amount depending on the player and the circumstances. The base fine for Clark's kind of hit is $21,000, at least twice that for a second offense. I'm guessing he's out $50,000.
In the end, Hanks didn't fine Clark a dollar. I'm shocked. Is this how you save football? Celek's feet have been torn off the ground. "Which means what,
I'm not so sure. But Hanks has fresher evidence that Clark isn't always the missile he used to be. It's a new hit from Week 6. Titans tight end Craig Stevens is slicing across the field. Clark reads the play from 20 yards out, and Stevens turns to receive the pass at precisely the wrong instant. This is how accidents happen. We're about to witness another one of Clark's trademark decapitations, another Willis McGahee, another Ed Dickson. Instead, Clark drops and puts his shoulder into Stevens' hands. He knocks out nothing but the ball. It is a clean, perfect hit. More important, it's a conscious decision on Clark's part. He chose to go hands over head. "Ryan's changing," Hanks says. "The system is working."
Crash investigators never get to see the planes they kept in the air. They don't know the names of the men and women who are alive today because of the corrections they made. They just have to believe they're up there, making vapor trails. Hanks is different. He knows. He watches Clark go low instead of high, again and again, and he lets out a little whisper of satisfaction. Craig Stevens is his name. He is the plane that didn't crash.