Cook: 'That's football' says Steelers' Ward
Friday, October 22, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Generally speaking, there are two reactions among players to the NFL's new, get-tough policy on hits to the head. Offensive players -- especially wide receivers and running backs -- are in favor of it and welcome the extra protection. Defensive players -- especially linebackers and defensive backs -- think it's ridiculous and worry that the pro game will be ruined.
Then, there is Hines Ward. He is a linebacker trapped in a wide receiver's body. You might think he is conflicted. But he's not. Not even a little bit.
"It's ridiculous," Ward said Thursday. "You can't take the roughness out of football."
The NFL is trying. It fined three players, including Steelers linebacker James Harrison, for hits Sunday that it considered too violent. It has promised to suspend even first-time offenders for vicious hits, beginning with the games Sunday.
"Thing is, they came to training camp this summer and talked to us and said there would be a warning, then a fine, then a suspension," Ward said. "Now they want to skip the first two steps and go right to the suspension. It's wrong."
By now, everybody has seen the hits Sunday. They've been replayed endlessly on television. Harrison knocked Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi out of the game and was fined $75,000 even though he wasn't penalized on the play and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called it a legal, non-fineable hit. Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson led with his shoulder and had a violent collision with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, leaving both with head injuries that ended their day. New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather leaped head-first at Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap's head and left Heap temporarily dazed. Robinson and Meriweather were fined $50,000 each. Harrison's fine was more because he was fined earlier in the season for trying to corkscrew Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young into the ground with a body slam. That was a much more dangerous play than his hit on Massaquoi.
Ward agreed with many longtime NFL observers that Meriweather's hit was the worst of the bunch. "It was an illegal hit. He jumped into him and led with the crown of his helmet."
But the others?
"That's football," Ward said. "It's a tough game. It has to be the toughest sport out there aside from maybe mixed-martial arts."
Ward knows it from all angles. During his 13-year career, he has taken his share of big hits and has said he has played with concussion-like symptoms. He also has delivered a number of infamous blocks on defenders, among them Rod Woodson, Ed Reed and Bart Scott. In the 2008 season, he broke the jaw of Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers. After the season, the NFL banned that sort of blindside hit. It's known as the Hines Ward rule.
"It's a tough game," Ward said again. "When we sign that contract, we know the risks. You don't have to play if you think it's too rough. We have guys quit in training camp every year because they can't take it. It's not for everybody. But those who play the game know the risks and are willing to take them."
Ward said a lot of the violent hits on pass plays across the middle could be eliminated if receivers played smarter. Harrison was able to deliver his blow to Massaquoi because the receiver came into his zone.
"You can't just run through zone coverage," Ward said. "If you run by one guy and then another guy, you have to know there's still going to be a third guy there waiting for you.
"That's why you always see me sitting down [stopping] when I see zone coverage. You're not supposed to run through zone coverage. You're supposed to find the opening and sit down."
Ward said quarterbacks -- especially young quarterbacks -- also need to have more regard for their receivers' safety. Browns rookie Colt McCoy filled in for injured veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace against the Steelers and made his NFL debut.
"It's funny, I was talking to Massaquoi about quarterbacks pregame," Ward said. "I told him it's rough playing with three different quarterbacks. It's especially tough playing with a rookie. If he considers you his go-to guy, he's going to watch you run your route the whole way. That's what happened on that play when [Massaquoi] was hit. [McCoy] followed him with his eyes the whole way. James saw that and knew that pass was coming."
Robinson's hit on Jackson couldn't be so easily avoided, Ward said.
"His quarterback [Kevin Kolb] didn't see the cornerback there and led him right into him. What was [Robinson] supposed to do? He led with his shoulder. That's a good football play. If he tackles him low, he blows out his knees and ends his career. Is that what the league's trying to tell us it wants?"
Like many NFL players, Ward is troubled by what he calls the league's "hypocrisy." Pictures of Harrison's hit on Massaquoi were available for purchase through the NFL website until KDKA-TV reported on it and embarrassed league officials into pulling the photos. "They said it was a mistake, but they know what's on their website," Ward said.
The Steelers are just as guilty of the hypocrisy. At least once in each home game at Heinz Field, they play Styx's song "Renegade" with an accompanying scoreboard video that highlights many of the hits by Steelers players that the NFL now is saying are illegal. Ward's block of Rivers is on it. So are safety Ryan Clark's hits on the Patriots' Wes Welker and the Ravens' Willis McGahee. The crowd loves it. The Steelers' defenders get geeked. But does that make it any less hypocritical?
And don't even get Ward started on the NFL's plan to go to an 18-game schedule.
"They say they care about the players' safety and they want to add two games?" he asked. "If they really cared about us, they should give us health care for life. But you know that's not going to happen."
Still, Ward plans on showing up Sunday in Miami to play the Dolphins. As he said, the game isn't for everybody. But, clearly, it's for him, violence, warts and all.
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