It was only a matter of time before the hit Houston Texans rookie safety D.J. Swearinger put on Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller this weekend ignited a heated outcry. Keller's teammate, wide receiver Brian Hartline, was the first to fuel the debate. Hartline recently told WQAM radio in Miami that Swearinger's shot -- one that led to Keller sustaining a season-ending knee injury after the defender crashed into his right leg -- was "crap." What Hartline should've been thinking was that it's only a matter of time before another victim winds up in Keller's shoes.
Defensive players around the NFL called this one a long time ago, roughly around the time the league decided to curtail the violence in the game. The belief then, and likely now, was that the more the league's officials tried to limit concussions by penalizing defenders for tackling high, the more those same defenders would start launching their bodies toward the legs of ball carriers. The logic made sense. Offensive players had to go down one way or another. The only question was which body part was going to be at risk.
As much as Hartline resented Swearinger's tactics, the bottom line is that the defender made a legal play. It may have broken some unwritten code, but that's not going to gain a ton of sympathy in other circles. Two years ago, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry sustained an ACL tear after Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson plowed into his left knee while delivering a cut block. Offensive players such as Hartline weren't complaining about the devastation Berry suffered at that time.
The reality is that this is the NFL as we now know it and the league would be wise to be just as concerned about what could become a growing trend. If players can't go high, they're going to go low if the circumstances call for it. In the case of Swearinger, he likely was thinking about the best method for tackling an opponent who outweighed him by 40 pounds. It says plenty about Swearinger's character that he sent a sympathetic tweet to Keller after hearing about the consequences of that hit.
What Swearinger also knew was that he now lives in a world in which he can't be nearly as aggressive as he once was. He said he was penalized three times while playing at South Carolina for hits that were deemed too vicious to the heads of opponents. Those types of punishments tend to stick in a player's mind once he's trying to make a living at the next level. Swearinger knew he was crossing the line too much in college and he openly admitted that his hit on Keller had everything to do with avoiding a fine at this level.
The problem with all this rewiring of how players play the game is that there is no perfect method for doing it. The NFL can show videos, fine players, force coaches to teach the appropriate strike zone for hitting and promote their programs for safe tackling all they want. The game is played too fast for all those methods to settle into a player's mindset completely. At some point, defenders are going to do whatever they have to do.
That means the legs are in play. We don't talk about it enough -- and neither do the league's decision-makers -- because it isn't nearly the hot-button issue as concussions are. Most people likely believe that it isn't a big deal if a player loses a season to a knee injury if it means protecting his brain from future long-term trauma. It's a valid argument, and one the NFL seems willing to embrace.
The people who actually play the game obviously think a little differently about the matter. As critical as it is to protect their heads, it's just as important to ensure the safety of their legs. Most players in the NFL aren't going to last longer than three years in the league. They deserve every opportunity to lengthen their stay for as long as possible.
This very topic actually brings us back to the problem with legislating violent hits in the NFL: The sport is too brutal for anybody to believe there won't be a high price to be paid for playing it. This isn't an argument for the days of old, when knockout shots were far too common. It's just a reality check for the optimists who believe it's only a matter of time before the game softens and the people playing it turn more passive.
That day will never come in the NFL, not with so much money on the line and so few opportunities to earn it. As much as Hartline didn't like the hit on Keller, it's likely that there are plenty of people in his locker room who would resort to a similar tactic if it enhanced their own job security. This is the agreement pro football players accepted when they entered the league. They don't like to see their peers carted off, but they also understand it can happen at any time.
The real hope here isn't that the league outlaws low hits or condemns players who utilize the option. It's mainly that commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff members recognize the byproduct of their attempts to clean up the messy issue of concussions. On one hand, they're doing the right thing by attempting to safeguard players' post-NFL lives. On the other, they may be ushering in a totally different kind of dangerous environment, one that offers its own concerns for the men playing today.