Harrison Smith was a skull-seeking rookie when I asked him whether he worried about damaging himself or opponents. “No,” was his answer, a shrug his punctuation.
Now entering his seventh season, Smith has established himself as one of the best players in the NFL, and one of the more adaptable. He told Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune that he wants to “evolve with the game” as the league tries to protect players from themselves and their union brothers.
Smith wants to evolve. The guy next to him wants to regress.
Safeties are often the brains of an NFL defense. Smith wants to use his to read offenses; Andrew Sendejo wants to use his to prop up one of the dumbest hats ever made that doesn’t feature a beer container and a straw.
“Make Football Violent Again,” Sendejo’s hat reads, although its target audience probably doesn’t.
Divining how the NFL is going to make players safer is difficult. The new rules designed to prevent head-to-head contact are well-intentioned and impossible to intelligently enforce, especially when part-time officials who were selling term life insurance on Friday are asked on Sunday to discern the difference between intentional spearing and accidental helmet contact.
It’s not difficult to understand Sendejo’s position on violence. Undrafted out of college, he began his career with the Sacramento Mountain Lions (really) and has built a quality NFL career by hitting hard and asking questions later.
Sendejo is exactly the kind of player the NFL needs to discipline, or weed out. His brutal hit to Mike Wallace’s head last year could have maimed Wallace. Sendejo led with his head and hit Wallace’s head, creating one of those NFL moments in which you wonder if you may see a player die on the field.
Consistent with the NFL’s idiotically uneven disciplinary system, Sendejo received a one-game suspension.
Now Sendejo is taunting the NFL, begging for a more serious suspension the next time he hits an opponent with his head, intentionally or incidentally. He’s risking his career. He also seems willing to damage his team. Losing a starter to a suspension is exactly the kind of development that could cost the Vikings a playoff berth, or a high seeding, or a home playoff game.
The NFL, like Smith, must evolve. The league has a brutal history of ignoring or hiding the effects of its violence on current and former players. What’s remarkable about the modern NFL is that the players now fully understand what happens to players who suffer brain injuries, or other damaged body parts, and yet those like Sendejo feel entitled to inflict that kind of damage.
This mind-set is wrong, and it’s bad for the league.
Players are right to be confused by the adjudication of the new rules, and right to be offended when a form tackle creates incidental helmet contact that draws a flag.
But what’s the alternative? Allowing players to continue leading with the crown of the helmet and knocking out opponents?
Hockey and lacrosse provide the model for the right level of NFL violence. Hockey players and lacrosse players lead with the shoulder, and hit to the shoulder or sternum. You can knock the wind out of someone, perhaps even crack a rib, with this kind of hit. You can knock someone flat. But you won’t do lifelong damage to the brain.
Football doesn’t need to be more violent. The game is at its best when its best players are healthy.
And if this doesn’t make sense to you Vikings fans, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t you have liked to see Brett Favre protected in the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans?
If officials hadn’t allowed so many cheap hits on Favre, he would have run for that last first down, and Ryan Longwell likely would have made that field goal, and the Vikings likely would have beaten the Colts in the Super Bowl.
His hat reads: “Make Football Violent Again.”
If Sendejo had played for Gregg Williams, Vikings fans would hate him.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org