NFL to tackle helmet hits

NEW YORK — Aiming for the head or leading with the helmet to deliver a blow could soon cost NFL players game time as well as money.

The league is considering suspending players for illegal hits in an effort to help prevent serious injuries, NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated Press on Monday, one day after several scary collisions in games.

“There’s strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits,” he said in a phone interview. “Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension.”

Anderson, a member of the league’s competition committee and one of its loudest voices on the need for enhanced player safety, said the NFL could make the changes immediately, with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s approval. League officials would consult with the players’ union, but he didn’t expect any opposition.

“Obviously suspensions would be a much bigger deal than fining guys,” said Colts center Jeff Saturday, the team’s player representative. “But if guys are headhunting out there to knock a guy out of the game, that’s the only way to take care of it.”

On Sunday, the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson and the Falcons’ Dunta Robinson were knocked out of their game after a frightening collision in which Robinson launched himself head first. Both sustained concussions.

Ravens tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather that Heap called “one of those hits that shouldn’t happen.”

The team was in contact with the league about the tackle.

“The thing we try to coach our players to do is basically hit in the strike zone,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Try to make an effort to do that and keep your head out of it. It’s not just the safety of your opponent, it’s safety for yourself. When you throw your head in there like that you put yourself at risk. It’s just not good football.”

Steelers linebacker James Harrison sidelined two Browns players with head injuries after jarring hits. An NFL spokesman said one of the tackles, on Joshua Cribbs, was legal. The Browns were more upset about Harrison’s hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, which the league is reviewing.

Harrison defended those hits after the game.

“If I get fined for that, it’s going to be a travesty,” Harrison said. “They didn’t call (a penalty) on that. There’s no way I could be fined for that. It was a good, clean legit hit. ... I didn’t hit that hard, to be honest with you. When you get a guy on the ground, it’s a perfect tackle.”

Anderson wouldn’t speculate on how many players would be punished for hits from Sunday’s games. Players also can be ejected from games for illegal hits, but that’s rare.

As far back as 2007, NFL officials were told to eject players for such flagrant fouls. The NFL said Monday that 17 players have been ejected since 2007. The AP accounted for 14 of those ejections: nine for throwing a punch or fighting, two for contact with officials, two that fall into the category of helmet hits, and one for head-butting.

Retired safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst for NBC, was adamant about the need for stiff, swift punishment. He was fined more than $200,000 during his career and suspended for one game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

“You didn’t get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,” he said during the pregame broadcast for “Sunday Night Football.” “You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates from not being there. But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars.”

Tony Dungy, the former coach and Harrison’s broadcast partner, echoed his sentiments — something that wasn’t lost on Anderson.

“When someone as respected as Tony Dungy and a player respected for his play and known for his hitting prowess such as Rodney Harrison say that, in fact, fines do not have a deterrent effect and that suspensions might, it is sobering,” he said.

Not only is the league concerned with defenders turning themselves into human missiles, but with aiming for the head with the forearm, shoulder or any other body part.

Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell wonders if the NFL is getting “too strict” about tackles involving the helmet.

“As a defensive player, you have to think about how you hit somebody now, which is totally ridiculous to me,” Bell said. “You’re trying to get a guy down. Sometimes you get caught leading with your helmet. When you’re going to tackle a guy full speed, you can’t really think, ‘Oh, I have to hit this guy a certain way.’ You have to get him down as best you can. Sometimes it’s helmet to helmet, which guys aren’t trying to do, but that’s just the way it is. It’s part of the game.”