Melissa’s Monday Musings: The NFL’s Biggest Issue is No Longer Political

Welcome back to this humble column. The dust has been blown off and we’re ready for another topsy-turvy season, full of jaw-dropping athleticism, a million surprises and enough issues to keep us a in regular state of conflict. (Spoiler: Watch out, you may be penalized 15 yards for reading this!)

For the uninitiated, this column is rather self-explanatory – my views on each weekend of NFL action. Unlike Peter King, I don’t have secure lines to all 32 coaches and general managers to give you context of THE game everyone is talking about. You may find a little reporting especially on the occasional Sunday when I force myself to leave behind the land of all-you-can-eat-nachos and mimosas (aka my kitchen), put on some civilized attire, and head to the confines of an NFL press box.

But mostly I share my views on the trends, controversies, players and sheer randomness that lights my fire. My hope is that if I care you will too. Hopefully you finish the column more entertained and less wanting to throw a brick at your screen, though I make no promises. Often I will lead this column with a unique musing that at least offers a new conversation starter, but not today….

We are two weeks through preseason football and the NFL zeitgeist has reached a consensus: The new lowering of the helmet rule is absolute garbage. I don’t want to spend a ton of time rehashing the basic perils so here’s the cliff notes version. When opponents speed toward each other in the moments before contact, they alter their body positions. Any routine tackle is now subject to a penalty. Officials don’t have the ability to enforce this rule.

There are already too many examples to count but here are three calls from Saturday alone, starting with a well-executed routing tackle by 49ers RB Raheem Mostert on a kickoff.

Or this textbook sack from Vikings Antwione Williams

This call on Bears CB may be the worst we’ve seen which is REALLY saying something.

None of these would have been even remotely considered penalties before this year. All are clean hits with zero intent to injure. Players playing football the way they’ve been taught since pee-wee.

There are myriad reasons this rule exists and altruistically caring about player safety is probably not high on the list. The NFL is inherently rooted in violence and gladiatorship, where any routine play can potentially derail a career as we saw in the case of Ryan Shazier under the bright lights of Monday Night Football last season. That’s the least of the league’s issues.

The NFL needs to save face in a society in which there is seemingly dramatic new data every other week about the effects of playing football on the brain. The league has already paid approximately $1 billion to a group of former players, for failing to disclose what they knew about the lingering and potentially life-threatening effects of brain trauma, and the next suit could be just around the corner. The NFL simply cannot afford another round of bad publicity of this magnitude.

Participation rates for youth tackle football have dropped dramatically since 2010, from 6.9 million participants to 5.2 million. Sure, the rise of technology has resulted in less kids playing youth sports across the board, but many parents are particularly spooked by football. (We have a friend who slightly exaggerated the recovery time of a sprained ankle to their 9-year-old so he would conveniently miss the window for football tryouts and play another sport instead.)

While the recent emphasis on player safety is reactive, there have been benefits. After a disastrous attempted partnership with the NIH (National Institutes of Health), the league recently donated $17 million toward concussion and CTE research, and hopefully will be far more transparent about its allocations and findings. I also believe the defenseless receiver rule, though improperly interpreted at times, has been a positive addition to the game.  For the most part, defenders have been able to adjust along with the fans’ expectations for what should be a penalty.

But this new rule flies in the face of basic tackling. The calls thus far have been wide-spread and inconsistent. Why is one play where the defender tackles with his shoulder a penalty when the next play is not? How is a linebacker supposed to know what to do with his head when there’s a running back adjusting his body every nanosecond in advance of plowing into him? Or more striking, what about cornerback taking on a tight end, who knows the only way to get him to the ground (and not get run over himself) is to tackle low. What’s he supposed to do, just stand up straight, put his arms in the air and surrender, ‘Come destroy my career with your Gronkness?’ This isn’t football.

In an early attempt to respond to the chorus of outspokenness from players, media and broadcasters, even before the second week of preseason’s new wave of disaster, NFL Senior Director of Officiating Al Riveron tweeted out a video of what’s legal (the “NFL Way to Play”) and what’s not.

But even this was murky and criticized enough that Riveron followed up with three more videos trying to explain this rule. What would have been far more helpful was if Riveron explained how a player is supposed to tackle when an opponent is charging toward you presenting so many variables at the speed of light.

Bottom line is if you lower your shoulder to tackle the way you’re supposed to you can’t really disconnect your head for a water break in the process.  With the defenseless receiver rule, it’s incumbent on the defender to avoid contact with the head of a receiver who is making a catch. With the new helmet rule, the opponent is often coming straight at you.

Given the speed of the game–which everyone aside from those who have played or had a sideline view underestimates–there is no way for these officials to properly and fairly make these calls. Especially since unlike defenseless receiver calls so many are already being made in the trenches. If the rule remains as is, the only viable solution is to make these calls reviewable. But hopefully the league will get the strong message of well, everyone, and only allow officials to make these calls only when  evidence of intent to injure is undeniable. Otherwise let’s just fast forward to the NFFL, the National Flag Football League.

Kudos Cleveland

Absolutely love how the Cleveland Browns have handled the Josh Gordon situation, giving him the space to deal with his substance and mental issues. Gordon is a generational talent when he plays and clearly his presence is great for the game, but the Browns have sent a very strong message of person over player.  The Packers followed suit by allowing rookie offensive lineman Cole Madison to deal with a personal issue for a lengthy period of time. Unfortunately not all teams are as humane.

The MMQB’s Kalyn Kahler reported on the chilling divorce of promising safety Su’a Cravens from the Redskins, including the team woefully ignoring his cries for help. Hopefully Cravens is getting more support in Denver (where he now plays) but the sad truth is the NFL’s standard is you’re only as valuable as the time you play and put into practice.

The NFL has slowly started to emphasis mental health awareness but if clubs really want to take care of their players they should consider regular mental health checks given the stresses of the job. It would no different from any other form of preventative medicine except for helping to crush archaic stereotypes of who therapy is for and not for.  Quickly frankly, society would be far improved if we all had regular mental health checks.

Don’t Rate Me, Jalen

Nothing frightens me more than than the prospect of getting reviewed by Jalen Ramsey … but damn,  I hope he keeps reviewing everyone else. Ramsey’s Q&A in GQ this week in which he called Josh Allen trash, said Joe Flacco sucks and doesn’t think Andrew Luck is that good, was refreshing and hilarious. Ramsey is a brash and authentic. He always has been. Some may question the classiness of his words, but I love this shutdown corner shooting from the hip, especially since he backs it up.

The NFL has been deficient in the rivalry department in recent years. (I’m sorry but Josh Norman and Dez Bryant’s feud stopped counting the second they got paid by Samsung to turn it into a commercial.) Ramsey has created rivalries with virtually every quarterback in the league, making Jags football must-see tv.

Early MNF Review

The new-look Monday Night Football crew debuted on Thursday, as Joe Tessitore and Jason Witten were in the booth for Jets-Redskins, along with Lisa Salters and Booger McFarlane win the sidelines. Salters is the only non-rookie of the crew.  It’s very early and I’m admittedly a Grudenologist but my early analysis is meh. Tessitore seems fine, professional and comfortable though his tone sounds eerily similar to Sean McDonough’s at times. Witten seems quite nervous and I don’t remember anything he said of note. As a player, Witten was always a great interview and adept at helping the media do its job by saying something so I’m hopeful he’ll bring more gusto moving forward. To anyone who expects Witten to be Tony Romo 2.0: Remember Romo and Nantz have been close friends for at least a decade. Genuine friendship goes a LONG way in a broadcast booth. The early star of this broadcast was clearly McFarlane who not only brought some much needed energy and fun to his reporting, but his analysis was smart, relevant and insightful.

Quick Hit Musings

– Bears WR Anthony Miller looks like the real deal. Watch this.

– Can’t stop salivating over the arm of Patrick Mahomes. Watch this.

– Take Marquise Goodwin before Pierre Garcon in fantasy. You’re welcome.

– Please see BlacKkKlansman especially if you’re of the variety who believe NFL players are protesting a phantom cultural rift.

– Thank you to those who have listened, rated and/or reviewed The Football Girl Podcast. We are weekly (new episodes drop Wednesday am) and proud to present an array of prominent women talking football with the occasional dude slipping. Please consider subscribing if you are not already.

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