Matt Bowen wrote in the Chicago Tribune on Friday that there was a similar program in Washington when Williams coached here. Players, Bowen said, were rewarded for “big hits, clean hits by the rule book.” But clearly, he has some misgivings about the practice — and about the league’s remorseless culture of doing “what has to be done.”
“No doubt, it can be downright disgusting living by a win-at-all-costs mentality,” he went on. “I’m not saying it’s right. Or ethical.”
The irony is that, in many respects, the game probably is cleaner today than it’s ever been. Until the ’50s, let’s not forget, you could punch an opponent in the face any time you felt like it. There was no mask to get in the way. Indeed, there was a lawlessness to pro football in those days, an almost professional wrestling aspect to it, that’s hard to imagine now. Quarterbacks, in particular, routinely were roughed up. The league hadn’t put them on the endangered-species list yet.
But in the decades since, the NFL has become increasingly intolerant of roughhouse tactics. It isn’t unusual these days for a player to be docked a game check for an over-the-line hit that wasn’t even penalized. As Jimmy Johnson put it when he was coaching in Dallas, “I don’t think anybody today can come anywhere close to someone who played 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Nowadays, if you look wrong at a guy, you’re going to get a $5,000 fine. If [Conrad] Dobler were playing today, his entire paycheck would go to the league, and then he’d owe them money.”
Still, Williams and the Saints went way too far. They embarrassed the league. They embarrassed themselves. They peeled back the layers of pro football and exposed its psychopathic side, its culture of excess. For that, someone must pay, and pay heavily. But there also must be a complete accounting. Let’s get it all out on the table. How widespread are bounties? Universal? Something less than that? Or does the NFL just not want to know?
Williams will be demonized for this, and likely will receive a hefty fine and suspension, but the players are just as culpable. And frankly, it takes some of the steam out of their concussion suits — which claim the league hasn’t been doing enough to protect the players — when the players are targeting one another in games for the sheer murderous fun of it.
I’m reminded of a fine bit of mumbo-jumbo once uttered by linebacker James Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bully. “I don’t want to injure anybody,” he said. “There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt people.”
I’m also reminded of the night Joe Theismann’s leg was broken by the New York Giants. When it became clear what had happened, Lawrence Taylor, one of the gang who tackled him, put his hands on his helmet in despair. “This is not what I play football for,” he seemed to be saying. Would a Saint have done the same thing, or would he have been too busy trying to figure out what a broken leg was worth?
You hear it all the time: Football players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. And that means, of course, that collisions are more destructive, too. It’s a miracle nobody has ever died on an NFL field from a vicious hit. Wonder if the Bounty Boys ever think about that when they’re dividing up the loot and setting the prices on the next opponent.