Bob Ford: Heavy hits: This approach is not working for the NFL.

Colts wide receiver Austin Collie is sandwiched by Eagles Quintin Mikell (left) and Kurt Coleman on a tackle that left Collie with a concussion. The NFL decided not to fine or suspend Coleman for Sunday's hit but said that a penalty for unnecessary roughness was justified.
Colts wide receiver Austin Collie is sandwiched by Eagles Quintin Mikell (left) and Kurt Coleman on a tackle that left Collie with a concussion. The NFL decided not to fine or suspend Coleman for Sunday's hit but said that a penalty for unnecessary roughness was justified.
Posted: November 09, 2010

The NFL office hustled up on Monday and reviewed the second-quarter collision from Sunday's game against the Colts in which Eagles safeties Quintin Mikell and Kurt Coleman sandwiched Austin Collie, the Indianapolis receiver finished the play with a concussion, and the Eagles were penalized for something or other.

The referees weren't necessarily sure what they were calling, or on whom, but they were very sure that the league office would want them to call something.

And right they were. The NFL announced on Monday that even though the call was incorrect, the officials did the right thing. They even made it sound as if that made sense.

"Though there will be no fine issued for this instance, the play was properly officiated," a league spokesman said. "Officials have been instructed to err on the side of player safety, and when in doubt, will penalize in situations such as this for unnecessary roughness."

It was originally announced, by the referee on the field, as an unnecessary roughness penalty against Mikell. After the game, during a short interview with a pool reporter, having seen the replay and gotten their stories straight, the officials said it was a penalty on Coleman, either for helmet-to-helmet contact or for hitting a defenseless receiver. Maybe both. They went back and forth on that one. But it was definitely for something. Oh, and just so this house of cards could withstand the wind, they said the pass was incomplete.

There are a lot of things to regret here, and the biggest of them, no question, is that Austin Collie left the field on a stretcher and suffered a potentially serious head injury. He might not even know how serious for another 15 or 20 years. That is the risk these guys accept every game.

The NFL is trying to find a way to legislate dangerous hits from a game in which every hit is dangerous. Concussions are bad for business and Roger Goodell was tired of hearing that the league wasn't doing anything about them. Maybe the NFL's attempts are sincere. Maybe they are in order to avoid a class-action suit brought by disabled former players somewhere down the road. Maybe it is the league's equivalent of lowering the pitcher's mound in order to provide more offense.

Whatever it is, it isn't working and it leads to knee-jerk officiating from a group that wasn't that good even before it had this mandate from the league. Sunday's call could have changed the outcome of the game, and the NFL congratulated its officials for screwing it up. Err on the side of making us look good, in other words.

"The league is trying like crazy to make this league right. I'm not sitting here to judge that," Andy Reid said Monday. "The officials are learning like we are, on the go. . . . I don't see what [Mikell and Coleman] could have done differently after looking at it on film and studying. If the player asked me that, I'd just have to tell them that."

In Reid's view, the defenders were blameless, just trying to make a tackle. He sidestepped the question of whether, after studying the film, he thought the call was correct. The Colts took some offense to the screaming they heard from the Eagles' sideline about the penalty, and the incomplete ruling, while their teammate was motionless on the field. Can't really blame them there.

"In the heat of battle, I can't sit here and tell you I'm the calmest guy in the world when I see those things," Reid said. "When you step back and look at it, I understand the big picture of things."

The little picture about the play itself is simple. Collie caught the ball, turned, took steps, saw the defenders, covered up the ball, and lowered his shoulder. If that's not a completion, then there has never been one in the NFL.

Mikell popped Collie shoulder-to-shoulder, no problem there, and Collie ricocheted backward into Coleman. The two struck helmets and both went down. Collie's helmet hit Coleman's, not the other way around.

"Because the helmet-to-helmet contact was a result of Collie being driven toward Coleman by Mikell's legal hit, there will be no fine for this action," the league statement said.

Well, great. But what about getting the completion call right? The Eagles should have recovered the fumble and stopped what turned out to be a Colts touchdown drive. (For the sake of brevity, let's not argue that, taken to logical extremes, the helmet-to-helmet contact penalty should have been called on Collie, although someone like F. Lee Bailey or Arlen Specter could probably make the case. And let's leave aside that the Eagles couldn't challenge the incomplete ruling because Reid had somehow misplaced his time-outs again.)

The big picture is different, of course. In the big picture, the Eagles almost lost their most important offensive weapon because of a nasty hit earlier this season. DeSean Jackson made it back to the field, and the Eagles would like to see him protected from further harm. DeSean wouldn't mind that, either. If the league is going to take care of Jackson, it has to take care of Collie, too. If a whole bunch of defenders are going to be fined and suspended in the process, or if the officials are going to mess up games in their zealous quest for gold stars, you have to accept the trade-off.

"For the players' sake down the road and all, we are kind of in a new territory here," Reid said. "Some things are going to have to change here."

As long as it is tackle football, however, the risks won't change for the players. It is always the players who suffer the injuries and the potential disabilities in later life. They try to make a play and risk everything each time.

The NFL is all right with that, as long as the league office can point to its confounding rules and its confused officials running around like scared hall monitors, and say, "Hey, you can't say it's our fault."

No, fellas, it isn't your fault. It's just this little game you have here. Try not to ruin it by saving it.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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