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Smallwood: NFL needs a crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits

IF YOU WATCH college football regularly, you have seen instances when officials have used replay to review blows to the upper body to determine whether it constituted targeting.

It doesn't take a lot of time, and if the offending player is found guilty of targeting, he is ejected from the game.

The NFL also has a rule against targeting. It just doesn't have nearly has much bite. It is 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Most of the discussion concerning the vicious helmet-to-helmet hit Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal laid on Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews in Sunday's game is that the officials missed an obvious penalty.

Why is there no NFL process for replay on something like that?

If the NFL allows officials to spend five minutes reviewing whether a receiver had possession, control and made a football move before determining whether something was a catch or incomplete pass, it can surely spend the time to review whether a guy tried to decapitate another player.

That is a legitimate question, but I'd say that even if the league allowed for video review to get the call correct, it would not resolve the more pertinent issue of eliminating targeting altogether.

In the grand scheme of things, the 15-yard penalty Neal would have gotten won't go far in helping to eliminate that kind of hit.

Even if Neal is fined by the league office later this week, as is likely, it won't discourage the next guy from being reckless about headhunting.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a fine aren't enough to outweigh the benefits of having the reputation as a big and intimidating hitter.

Considering the health concerns surrounding helmet-to-helmet hits, you'd think the NFL, which has both been publicly embarrassed by its previous lack of concern about concussions and forced into a $1 billion settlement with former players over the issue, would be more proactive in discouraging the mentality of players who are reckless about such of contact.

The NCAA has it correct. If a player is found to have targeted, regardless of intent, he is ejected.

Why the NFL doesn't adopt the same rule makes no sense to me.

For the better part of a decade, there has been an emphasis in all levels of football, from Pop Warner to the NFL, to teach proper tackling techniques that eliminate the use of the helmet as a spearing weapon.

Most players in the NFL today have a clear understanding of what targeting is and the dangers of it. They have, in fact, been specifically trained to not make the kind of hits Neal put on Matthews.

Logically, that means the only reason these incidents keep happening – and there are at least a couple each NFL week, with most being delivered to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton – is that players and coaches are careless with the rule because the penalties are relatively mild.

In the long game, earning a reputation as an intimidating hitter is worth a 15-yard penalty and a few thousand dollars in fines.

The only way for the NFL to show players it takes targeting seriously enough that it truly wants it eliminated from the game is to follow the NCAA's lead and immediately eject players who are penalized for targeting.

You give the hitter the benefit of the doubt, but if replay confirms it was targeting, that player is out of the game.

That is a penalty with teeth, because a player's carelessness can cost his team a game.

When the consequences are that high, avoiding of helmet-to-helmet hits will be a major point of emphasis each day in practice from the coaching staff.

It makes little sense that the NFL has all of these protocols for concussions after the fact, but is lax on containing the thing most likely to produce a concussion – vicious helmet-to-helmet contact.

Initially, defensive players will complain that the NFL is hamstringing them even more and watering down the violent nature that makes the sport what it is, but so what?

What we do know, however, is that the players will adjust, just as they have adjusted to all of the other limitations that have been legislated.

Players adapt to handle new rules or they don't last in the league for long.
A player can still earn a reputation as an intimidator without delivering the type of blows that increase the potential for paralysis or lifelong concussion issues.

If the NFL and the NFL Players Association actually are concerned about the dangers associated with targeting, then collectively bargain a penalty that has serious repercussions for committing the act – a penalty that threatens the career of the player who has threatened the career of the guy he stretched out on the turf with an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit.