James Harrison is right. The NFL’s hypocrisy regarding injuries is startling – kudos to Silverback for saying something about it. Harrison correctly notes the lack of protection for minority quarterbacks and defensive players’ knees, but that’s just the beginning: recent rule changes to increase scoring – i.e. more passing – have put more players in direct danger of having their heads torn off and, in Harrison’s case, their wallets raided.
Injuries are a part of football and can occur on any play, but some plays are more dangerous than others. For example, this year the NFL pushed back the kickoff to reduce injuries on kickoff returns. This idea passes the sniff test: since there’s a higher percentage of injuries on certain plays (kickoff returns), reduce the number of returns to decrease injuries.
But the NFL has taken the exact opposite path regarding the passing game. Passing plays have always been particularly dangerous, both to the receiver who is largely defenseless, and the quarterback who has to withstand the rush long enough to find the open receiver. It’s not an accident that there’s a penalty for hitting a defenseless receiver, but no such penalty for running backs.
The passing game has always been dangerous. Jack "The Assassin" Tatum and George Atkinson hospitalized their share of Steelers (ask Lynn Swann), and Mel Blount was known to body slam receivers head first. But the number of passing plays allowing for such hits was less because teams didn’t pass as much. A cursory search at Pro-Football-Reference.com proves what we all know anecdotally, that for three decades passing attempts are up and rushing attempts are down.
Following the NFL’s logic on kickoff returns, we should expect them to implement rules to discourage passing, but they’ve run the other way. In their quest to make a high-scoring, television-friendly product that more and more resembles a fantasy pinball machine, they are making the game more dangerous for quarterbacks and receivers. The way to deal with the problem isn’t to demonize defensive players like Harrison, but rather to implement rules designed to decrease the percentage of dangerous plays. They did it for kickoffs but I’m not expecting much for the passing game. As long as the NFL continues to elevate the importance of golden-armed quarterbacks, players like Harrison should watch their wallets.