Heed the cry of the tough guys

Recently retired NFL safety Rodney Harrison blasted the league a few months back, and his criticisms shouldn't be quickly forgotten. He called the NFL "soft." He claimed it had turned into a "pansy league." These were the kind of words that certainly will call attention to Harrison's newfound broadcasting career. But they were also comments that weren't too far off the mark.

Look, we all know the NFL still has plenty of tough guys. What it is losing, however, is the sense that the people who run the sport are completely in touch with the fundamental aspects of the game. That was apparent once again when the league made an eye-opening adjustment to the roughing-the-passer rule during the owners' meetings in March. It quickly became known as "The Tom Brady Rule," in reference to the New England Patriots' star signal-caller, and it was that legislation that so agitated Harrison.

The adjustment basically states that defenders who have been knocked to the ground must get back on their feet before tackling the quarterback. It's the league's attempt to avoid the type of lunging hit delivered by Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard in September, the one that led to a season-ending knee injury for Brady. It's easy to see why the league wants to have such a rule on the books. It's also harder to think that this amendment doesn't temper the culture of a sport that always has been about brutality.

In fact, that rule change is one more example of why some players feel the league has softened too much. Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu even complained last fall that the NFL "is becoming more and more [like] flag football, two-hand touch. We've really lost the essence of what real American football is about." Polamalu was upset after the Steelers received a rash of fines last season for everything from vicious blocks by wide receiver Hines Ward to taunting by former wide receiver Nate Washington. In all, four players were hit with $45,000 in fines at the time of Polamalu's comments.

Polamalu also suggested something that shouldn't be dismissed easily: that the league's obsession with heavy-handed discipline for overly aggressive play has more to do with money than safety. It's hard to argue against that. Just consider these comments from New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft after the league amended that roughing-the-passer rule: "What makes [the NFL] special is special players. It's like going to see a great movie and the star isn't in the movie. It's the same principle."

That's not exactly true. The promotion of special players is how the NBA remade itself in the 1980s. The NFL, on the other hand, has always marketed itself as a team game; the ultimate game, as many have said. There have been plenty of teams that have prospered after losing key personnel to injuries -- the Patriots actually just missed last season's playoffs after going 11-5 following Brady's injury -- and that type of resilience is something that also makes the sport great.

What owners like Kraft can't understand is something that should be obvious to most NFL fans: This sport is about controlled violence. It's about an abundance of oversized men with ridiculous strength, speed and quickness crashing into each other during a 60-minute game. Injuries are going to happen in that kind of arena. It's the willingness of these players to compete with that risk that makes the sport so compelling in the first place.

That doesn't mean the NFL hasn't created some recent rules that have been good for player safety. It just means that the league has also done plenty of harm with its attempts to legislate the game. Look at what's happened to modern cornerbacks. It's nearly impossible for them to thrive consistently because they can't touch a wide receiver more than five yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The league had also been doing everything possible to protect quarterbacks long before amending the roughing-the-passer rule. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen actually had to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell last season after Allen's hits on two quarterbacks -- Houston's Matt Schaub and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers -- drew scrutiny from the league. Allen ultimately was fined $50,000 for the hits on Schaub, but the league didn't discipline him for a suspected helmet-to-helmet contact with Rodgers.

Still, his visit to the league office was an ominous indication of how the NFL powers that be want their players, especially those on defense, to behave. It's that kind of scrutiny that makes it harder for players to think their game isn't changing in ridiculous ways.

"We play a violent sport," Allen told local reporters last fall. "We know that and we willingly sign up for it. We don't ever purposely go out to hurt anybody, ever. I know for myself that I have the utmost respect for everybody who plays this sport. But at the same time, it's like you can't make rules to tame it down. This is what we do. We're grown men. We make the decisions to do what we do."

That really is the point of all this. Nobody denies that the game exacts a huge toll on the men who compete in it; all you have to do is look at the masses of retired players who have been crippled by it. But you also don't hear those same men complaining that the game was too harsh in their day. They take pride in their collective toughness. They know their combination of courage and conviction is what allowed them to play the game at the highest level in the first place.

That's why Harrison's assessment of what's been happening to the NFL isn't something that should be taken lightly. The culture of the game has been shifting in subtle ways, and that change is sapping a vital edge from the sport. The reality is that there's only so much that can be controlled on a football field. And if the league keeps trying to institute too many precautions, it will someday end up with a style of play even its own players might not recognize.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.