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Thursday, October 31
Updated: November 1, 5:14 PM ET
No easy answer on helmet-to-helmet hits

By Len Pasquarelli

Banished from Sunday's home contest with the New York Jets because of a one-game suspension levied against him by the NFL's "hit police," San Diego strong safety Rodney Harrison has been working with the scout team for the first time since his early days at Western Illinois University.

Harrison's pride is even a bit more bruised than his wallet, and that's saying something since the mandated day off will cost him a game check worth $111,764. "Embarrassing" was the word Harrison chose to describe his personal chagrin.

Other defenders in the league have opted for considerably stronger language to address the recent rash of fines and suspensions emanating from the office of NFL finemeister Gene Washington. Pittsburgh strong safety Lee Flowers even suggested, in a moment of indiscretion sure to draw notice on Park Avenue, that someone in the NFL office is fattening his coffers with the fine money.

There is no denying that the suspensions of Harrison and Denver safety Kenoy Kennedy, and fines this week totaling $125,000 against safeties Brian Dawkins of Philadelphia and Dallas' Darren Woodson, have directed focus on the issue of helmet-to-helmet hits and excessive ardor in tackling. But even at the NFL's annual fall meetings in New York earlier this week, club officials offered mixed views about whether the game has suddenly become increasingly violent.

I don't know how to tackle with these rules anymore, especially in the middle of the field. I have been taught since I was in third grade, 'Lead with your eyes, go across the body.' You can't change the way people play. You can't. They seem to think that I can make a decision in a split-second. The guy is in the air. He's coming down. And I'm supposed to launch with my chest?
Darren Woodson, Cowboys safety

"I don't know that you can undo 20 or 25 years of teaching the game a certain way," said Detroit Lions president and general manager Matt Millen, a former NFL linebacker. "For years, we've taught guys to lead with their heads. If you're a defensive player at any level, you have dreams of coaches screaming, 'Stick your head in there!' And now we're telling people that they can't do that. And we're asking them to make split decisions, to change direction in mid-air, like a high-wire act. I'm all for safety, but some stuff just can't be done."

It is not as if the rules for excessive contact or illegal use of the helmet are new to the league, commissioner Paul Tagliabue points out. They were enacted in 1995 and have not been altered since. But there is now more emphasis on protecting so-called "defenseless" players, and on assuring that high-priced quarterbacks remain perpendicular, not prone.

The rules and their interpretation have been particularly harsh on safeties this season. Fines or suspensions against four starting safeties -- Harrison, Kennedy, Dawkins and Woodson -- have cost those players nearly $300,000 in lost salary. But of the quartet, only Dawkins was a first-time offender (it is believed), and the other three safeties had sanctions increased because of repeat offenses.

Harrison, for instance, has now been sanctioned three times over an 18-game stretch. Never noted as a cheap-shot player, Woodson has been penalized in two straight games. Kennedy has drawn three fines this season.

Tampa Bay president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's powerful competition committee, said Thursday at the NFL meetings that fines have been a deterrent against recidivism in the past. But that doesn't seem to be the case in 2002, a season McKay said he hopes is "an anomaly."

"I don't know that the numbers (of excessive-force) penalties are up," said McKay, "because I haven't seen the statistics yet. But because we've had two suspensions, and two pretty substantial fines this week, the perception is that things are getting worse. And this year, it seems, we've had repeat offenders. In the past, when guys got fined, they seemed to back off. That seemed to have an effect."

But therein lies part of the problem. Players don't believe they should have to back off and argue that, in some cases, the physical laws of motion make it impossible to avoid helmet-first contact. Players insist that, in most cases, they are not intentionally attempting to initiate helmet-to-helmet collisions. But the game's pace is so quick anymore, the athletes so advanced, that it is impossible in some instances to avoid such hits.

Side Lines
The Monday night game between Miami and Green Bay will feature plenty of great individual matchups, but none looks to be more critical than the head-to-head meeting of Dolphins right defensive end Jason Taylor and Packers left offensive tackle Chad Clifton or Mike Flanagan. In any circumstance, it would be a classic matchup. But with Packers quarterback Brett Favre likely to be less mobile because of his knee injury, this meeting takes on added significance. The less Favre has to move around the pocket, the better the Packers' chances for victory. Taylor is playing at a high energy level, has 5½ sacks and is a candidate for defensive player of the year honors. As of Thursday, the dependable Clifton had not practiced this week because of a sprained knee. When healthy, he is one of the league's best young left tackles. If Clifton can't go, Flanagan will move from his center spot to left tackle.
The List
While each game counts as one-sixteenth of the schedule, coaches are fond of telling their teams that championships are claimed in November and December, the playoff stretch run. Here is a look, then, at each teams' record over the final two months of the season the past 10 years:
Team Record Pct.
Green Bay 60-27-0 .690
San Francisco 57-27-0 .679
Jacksonville 35-22-0 .614
Denver 49-34-0 .590
Pittsburgh 50-36-0 .581
Tennessee 49-37-0 .570
Kansas City 47-37-0 .560
Minnesota 47-37-0 .559
New England 46-37-0 .554
Tampa Bay 46-39-0 .541
Dallas 46-40-0 .535
Baltimore 26-23-1 .530
Buffalo 45-41-0 .523
Miami 44-42-0 .512
New York Giants 41-41-1 .500
Atlanta 41-42-0 .494
Philadelphia 41-42-1 .494
Carolina 28-31-0 .475
New York Jets 39-44-0 .470
Oakland 38-46-0 .452
Seattle 38-46-0 .452
Indianapolis 38-47-0 .447
Washington 36-46-1 .440
Arizona 37-48-0 .435
Detroit 37-48-0 .435
Chicago 36-48-0 .429
St. Louis 36-48-0 .429
New Orleans 35-49-0 .417
Cincinnati 33-51-0 .393
San Diego 33-51-0 .393
Cleveland 16-43-0 .271
Stat of the Week
When the New Orleans Saints traded away Ricky Williams, they gambled that second-year tailback Deuce McAllister would provide them a big-play dimension their offense had lacked for several seasons. So far, the Saints are winning the gamble, as McAllister has registered five runs of 46 yards or more in the first eight games. No other back in the league has more than one run of 46-plus yards this season.
Stat of the Weak
San Francisco has lost its last 12 road games against opponents with winning records. OK, so the trip across the Bay to Oakland this weekend isn't exactly an adventure. But it is a road game and, despite their three-game losing skid, the Raiders are still 4-3.
The Last Word
Darren Woodson
Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, who will appeal the ruling, on the $75,000 fine levied against him earlier this week: "I know one thing. I think the league is terrible in the way they handle these things. First of all, there is no arbitrator. It is the league's word against yours. This is America. Is this the way things like this should be done?"

"I don't know how to tackle with these rules anymore, especially in the middle of the field," said Woodson, fined $75,000 for last Sunday's helmet-first hit on Seattle wide receiver Darrell Jackson. "I have been taught since I was in third grade, 'Lead with your eyes, go across the body.' You can't change the way people play. You can't. They seem to think that I can make a decision in a split-second. The guy is in the air. He's coming down. And I'm supposed to launch with my chest? If I pull up, miss the tackle and he runs 60 yards for the touchdown, then what? We've got to live with the things that go on, too. They don't see it that way."

Actually, it would have cost Woodson less money had he been suspended for a game. One game check for him is $44,117. The $75,000 fine represents 10 percent of his 2002 base salary.

Dawkins, who was fined $50,000 on Thursday for a Monday night hit that will sideline New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard for the rest of the season, echoed Woodson's sentiments. Flowers opined that the league should simply "hire a bunch of robots" to play defense. And Oakland free safety Rod Woodson noted that the helmet-to-helmet hit "is the penalty the league wants called this year."

Certainly the NFL made such hits a so-called "point of emphasis" for 2002. But no one in the league office wanted, or could have predicted, so much attention would be directed at the issue. The irony is that in a league that has done so much to stress a "safety first" approach, safeties feel that they are being singled out for much of the punitive action.

"You look," Flowers said, "at who is drawing the fines. Look at who are the guys being suspended. It's almost as if they're going after (safeties). It's a position that is under the microscope right now."

League officials denied that contention at their meetings this week. What they did not deny is that the game will continue to be officiated the same way the rest of the year, that the rules against using the helmet as a weapon will not be changed, and that more sanctions are coming unless the players and coaches heed the 1995 resolution. A letter to head coaches was dispatched on Thursday, reminding them that they must teach proper techniques.

The onus, in essence, is on the coaching staffs. The binoculars, though, are trained on the defenders. And if the instances of helmet-to-helmet contact continue, so will the stiff punitive measures.

Around the league

  • It didn't get much play outside of New York, but when Giants head coach Jim Fassel quietly relieved Sean Payton of his play-calling responsibilities early in the week, it marked the latest dent in the once-ascendant career of the club's offensive coordinator. Only a couple years ago, when the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl, the brainy Payton was a hot commodity. While he didn't get interviewed for any head coach vacancies following the Super Bowl loss, owners put a bullet next to his name, marking him as a guy worth watching and a young assistant who would soon be on teams' "short lists." Two years later, Payton is on the endangered species list instead, and his is a tale of how quickly an assistant coach's stock can plummet. According to published reports, Payton reacted to the news that Fassel had reclaimed the play-calling chores like a man who knows he's a short-timer. The Giants have scored but seven offensive touchdowns in seven games. But the drought goes back much further, with the team notching just 21 offensive scores in its past 15 games. In that period, New York has managed more than two offensive touchdowns in a game only twice. With his mother ailing and his attention diverted, Fassel elevated Payton from quarterbacks coach to coordinator and handed him the play-calling reins on Dec. 5, 1999. Turns out that game was Payton's high-water mark, as the Giants scored five offensive touchdowns in a 41-28 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. But in the 43 regular-season games since, New York has scored only 79 touchdowns on offense. Just once in that stretch did the Giants score more than three offensive touchdowns. Fifteen times they had but one offensive score. This is a difficult personal time for Payton, with his mother passing away last week. The decision to strip him of the play-calling was hardly an easy one for Fassel, who himself has come under fire for the Giants' performance in 2002. What Payton likely needs is a fresh start and a change of scenery. What he needs is to recover emotionally, get through the season and then start rebuilding a once-promising career.

  • While on the subject, here's the "short list" of current NFL assistants one league general manager said he would suggest if his owner decided to make a head coaching change at year's end: 1, Atlanta defensive coordinator Wade Phillips; 2, Miami offensive coordinator Norv Turner; 3, New Orleans offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy; 4, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson; 5, Denver defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes; 6, Buffalo offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride; 7, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Turner, by the way, is almost certainly the man Dallas owner Jerry Jones will pursue if Dave Campo doesn't survive this season. It's likely that Turner, who worked for Jones as offensive coordinator under Jimmy Johnson, would consider the job but only with assurances he would have some control over personnel and staffing.

    Edgerrin James
    Edgerrin James is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry this year.

  • Teams that have faced the Indianapolis Colts recently confirm that tailback Edgerrin James isn't close to being the player he was before he had knee surgery last fall. Colts officials were enthusiastic about James in camp, but he didn't play at all in preseason, and it now appears Indianapolis staffers were just posturing. The truth is it usually takes any player, but almost always a running back, more than a year to recover from a traumatic knee injury. James was Superman before the injury, but expectations for his quick recovery were set way too high. Against the Redskins last Sunday night, James looked slow to the hole, indecisive, and went down easy on initial contact. The better back for the Colts was unheralded Ricky ("The Other") Williams, who had some spunk and provided the Colts a spark. None of this is to suggest that James won't return to his pre-injury brilliance. Rather, he rates as the latest "Exhibit A" on recovery time for a tailback. Look for him to be the Edgerrin of old in 2003 but not before that.

  • Colts owner Jim Irsay reiterated at this week's league meetings that his goal is to keep the Colts in Indianapolis, that reports of his interest in Los Angeles are "overstated" but that the franchise needs more assistance from the city of Indianapolis. Other than some whispers that San Diego president Dean Spanos is interested in Los Angeles, there was little talk of the nation's second-biggest market at the meetings, not even in the usual unofficial corridor huddles that always occur when the owners convene. Nor was there any discussion of the possible sale of the Minnesota Vikings. There had been some rumblings that owners would begin examining the finances of Glenn Taylor, owner of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves and the man most likely to purchase the Vikings if Red McCombs sells. But those proved unfounded, and the finance committee, which typically takes up such matters, did not discuss McCombs or Taylor in its sessions.

  • If an agreement between Minnesota and first-round offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie falls apart now, it will be because the Vikings insisted that the NFL Players Association drop its collusion charges against the club. The two sides have made significant progress toward a five-year contract, with a signing bonus of more than the $8.1 million that the Vikings had been offering for months, and there remains a chance a deal could be finished by the weekend. That doesn't mean an accord will be accomplished, though. In the past week, the odds of an agreement have fluctuated even more than the stock market. The collusion element, however, definitely had the potential to be a deal-breaker.

  • The Buffalo Bills are getting pretty good mileage from one former Tampa Bay defensive end, Chidi Ahanotu, who has four sacks and has added some much-needed experience to a young unit. Now the Bills are checking out Marcus Jones, released by the Bucs last month, as a potential playoff stretch run addition. Jones probably will just sit out the rest of the '02 campaign and get himself fully recovered from a knee injury, with his aim toward being in someone's training camp next summer. But if he is close to whole again, the Bills will make a push to get him into uniform this season, especially now that it appears Buffalo has a legitimate playoff opportunity. It seems that everything general manager Tom Donahoe and assistant GM Tom Modrak touch turns to gold, and we aren't just talking about the Drew Bledsoe acquisition. Former Denver left tackle Trey Teague, who looked like a spare part after the Bills used their first-round choice on tackle Mike Williams, had played great at center. Backup tackle Marcus Price, basically an afterthought in New Orleans for much of his four-year tenure there, has played well in replacing the injured Williams at right tackle.

  • A few Arizona insiders noted that the future of quarterback Jake Plummer with the Cardinals will likely be decided on his performance over the second half of the '02 season. Plummer is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, has had his usual flashes of brilliance, overshadowed at times by horrendous gaffes. The positive news for Plummer is that the club really has no alternatives right now. Opting not to sign Pummer would mean starting all over again. The potential free agent class isn't loaded with great quarterbacks and the Cardinals might finish too high to have a shot in the draft at one of the top prospects. It's definitely a conundrum for the team, but one Cardinals officials are putting off for a while, as they continue to assess Plummer's performance.

  • By the way, here's a twist of fate, one that could have had ramifications on a couple franchises: In 1999, when Dave McGinnis was poised to become the head coach of the Chicago Bears, he had a verbal agreement from then-Washington assistant coach Mike Martz to come aboard as his offensive coordinator. But the Bears announced an agreement with McGinnis before one was actually consummated, he backed out of the job, and Martz joined the Rams instead as offensive coordinator.

  • Sources close to Maurice Clarett told ESPN.com this week that the shoulder injury he suffered last Saturday, which is unlikely to keep him out of action this weekend, may have strengthened the resolve of the Ohio State true freshman tailback to challenge the NFL's draft rules. Or at least it has strengthened the resolve of his family, which is said to be calling the shots on his future, on legally challenging the rule that stipulates a player must be three years removed from high school to apply for the draft. "The shoulder (injury) threw a scare into them," said one source. "They saw all those dollar signs flying out the window. They figure if he's going to get hurt, better to do it where he's getting paid, at the professional level." League officials reiterated at the annual fall meetings this week they will vigorously defend any court challenges to their draft eligibility rules.

  • The fractured hip that ended the 2002 season of defensive tackle Sean Gilbert almost certainly also concluded his star-crossed five-year tenure with the Panthers. The team has never gotten much return on its investment in Gilbert, one of the game's most notable underachievers, and surely won't now. Beyond the financial investment in Gilbert, the Panthers had to part with a pair of first-round draft choices to pry the onetime "franchise" player away from the Washington Redskins in 1998. Gilbert started all 16 games in each of his first two years in Charlotte but has played in just 32 contests in the three seasons since. He posted six sacks in 1998, his first season with the Panthers, and has just 9½ since then. Gilbert is due a base salary of $6.5 million in 2003, has a $1 million roster bonus due in March and carries a hefty cap value of $9.76 million for next season. Bet the house he won't see any of it. It will cost the Panthers $5.53 million in "acceleration" if they release Gilbert before June 1. If they wait until after that, they will have to pay him the roster bonus, but they can delay $3.27 million in signing bonus "acceleration" until 2004.

  • In case no one has noticed, Jon Gruden's offense in Tampa Bay has now gone eight quarters without a touchdown. Brad Johnson will return to the starting lineup on Sunday, but don't bet against Shaun King getting a start before the end of the season. King has the kind of movement skills Gruden prefers in his trigger man.

  • Punts: Funny how some Washington officials were telling people that Jeff George had lost his once-trademark arm strength. During his audition for the Seahawks, George zipped 30-yard comebacks, a pass that most are asked to throw at 25 yards. You know George had something on the ball because a few Seattle coaches were among the guys told not to touch the itinerant George by friends around the league. ... Look for the Bengals to increase the playing time of rookie safeties Lamont Thompson and Marquand Manuel. ... Tailback Olandis Gary won't be back in Denver for the 2003 season. ... Veteran punter Tom Rouen, released by the Broncos this week, could be in a Giants uniform by next week. ... The Lions finally will have their full projected complement of veteran wide receivers this week, good news for a team starting to gain a quickened pulse with Joey Harrington at quarterback. ... Houston might attempt to sign safety Eric Brown, who has played well, to a contract extension.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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