My initiation to NFL football was as a kid here in St. Louis. My dad was a Packers fan, and so on many Sundays I would have no choice but to watch the Packers take on whomever they were playing.
This was the back end of the Green Bay dynasty, but they were still legendary, and I remember watching defensive players like middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, defensive lineman Bob Brown and cornerback Willie Wood pummeling opponents.
What I remember more, because it was the back end of the dynasty, was how the Packers would just get pounded themselves. The Vikings, Bears and Lions would just hammer them.
I find it ironic today, as the NFL suspended four members of the 2009-2011 Saints coaching staff and front office, how the league was viewed, and viewed itself then as opposed to now. That division with Green Bay, Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit was known as the “Black and Blue” division. All four defenses were so hard hitting and left such marks that players were black and blue after one of their games. When they would play each other, it was known simply as a “black and blue division matchup,” and when someone said that, a fan knew what they meant.
Chicago was known as the Monsters of the Midway. Players like Dick Butkus and Doug Buffone were glorified for their lay-out hits on opponents. Minnesota had the Purple People Eaters, and Carl Eller, Alan Page, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen would devour opposing quarterbacks.
Even here in St. Louis, Larry Wilson and Chuck Walker would level opposing players on a regular basis. It was a violent sport, and I loved it. In fact, that violence is really a big part of what made the NFL what it is today.
Who have been the most popular teams for long stretches? The Cowboys, who in addition to all their star power on offense, featured the “Doomsday” defense. The Steelers, who became popular during the 70s because of The Steel Curtain. The Raiders, who featured hard hitting (some would say dirty) safeties Jack Tatum and George Atkinson, and whose owner Al Davis said “The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.”
It wasn’t just those teams. In the 80s, Ronnie Lott of the 49ers was revered for his toughness and hard hitting. So was St. Louisan Steve Atwater, a thumper at safety for the Broncos. The 1985 Bears mauled opponents, and celebrated knocking opposing quarterbacks out of games. Linebacker Wilber Marshall would woof like a dog when the Bears knocked a quarterback out. When Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan moved on to Philadelphia, he put bounties on several players, and coached the infamous “body-bag game” on a Monday night in 1990 against the Redskins, in which the Eagles knocked eight Redskins out of the game.
That game, and the actions of Nitschke, Butkus, Wilson, the Purple People Eaters and former Rams defensive end Deacon Jones are celebrated ad nauseum by NFL Films, on the NFL’s own network.
But, that was a long time ago. As I remember, there was much more of a Wild West feel to the NFL back then. Frontier justice prevailed, and officials knew it was a hard hitting game. I don’t remember players getting fined for hits back then.
With the suspensions of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and former defensive coordinator, now Rams coordinator Gregg Williams; we know there isn’t any wild west these days in the NFL. Roger Goodell is the sheriff, and he’s in charge. If you’re out of line, if you don’t hit the way commissioner Goodell wants you to hit, if you provide extra financial incentive to a defensive player to hit harder, you’re in trouble.
Those are the rules. There’s nothing wrong with what Goodell did. He’s the boss of a league that’s under siege in court from players that took the hits of the guys I mentioned above. More than 300 players have joined lawsuits contending the NFL knew about concussions and let them occur anyway, leaving the players’ futures in peril.
If Goodell is going to try and protect the league against future lawsuits, he must take every action possible to at least give the impression that the league is all about player safety. I happen to think the commissioner is sincere when he says player safety is important to him. That’s why James Harrison of the Steelers gets fined for every helmet-to-helmet hit, why Goodell made it a point to say in his statement that “the bounty program is squarely contrary to the league’s most important initiatives – enhancing player health and safety and protecting the integrity of the game.”
Pete Rozelle didn’t say that sort of thing when a vicious hit by Tatum paralyzed New England wide receiver Darryl Stingley. Paul Tagliabue didn’t need to issue a statement when Buddy Ryan put a bounty on the head of Dallas kicker Luis Zendejas or initiated the defense that resulted in the body-bag game.
The league has a lot of things to consider in 2012. Being known as a violent sport isn’t such a good thing anymore. The wild-eyed, out-of-control Lawrence Taylor probably would have difficulty playing in a league with Goodell as commissioner. As he said, “While all club personnel are expected to play to win, they must not let the quest for victory so cloud their judgment that they willingly and willfully target their opponents and engage in unsafe and prohibited conduct intended to injure players.”
From now on, when an NFL defender delivers a big hit, that hit and that player are going to be judged differently by officials and the league. Because of the concussion problem, this league certainly doesn’t want helmet-to-helmet hits, and, whether induced by incentives or not, doesn’t appear to want hard hitting at all.
That’s a far cry from what the NFL was when I was growing up. It’s not bad. It’s just different. And the suspensions of those involved in the bounty program ensured that it’s going to be that way forever.