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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

DJ Swearinger's Hit: Get Used to It

Following his hit on Miami tight end Dustin Keller on Sunday, I am quite sure that many will be calling into question the character of former South Carolina Gamecock DJ Swearinger. Most of them will be wearing orange overalls, but still...

Swearinger, fighting for a roster spot on the Houston Texans, ended the season, and perhaps the career, of Miami Dolphins' tight end Dustin Keller during a preseason game on Sunday. Swearinger denies doing anything intentional, and blames the new NFL rules on tackling and head shots for his tackling technique.

No need to set the DVR for that interview. You'll hear that story a lot in the next few years.

The NFL has declared that defensive players will always be held responsible for helmet-to-helmet shots, no matter how the ball carrier or receiver changes position. That sets up a situation where players have only one choice when tackling: Go low.

If you go for the legs, there is little chance that an adjustment by the receiver will result in a blow to the head. So the smart defender is going to target the area where there is a maximum opportunity to make the tackle while minimizing the chance for penalties. Not to mention the inevitable follow-up fine and suspension.

Clearly, Swearinger is no Holy Roller, and is a far cry from the defensive version of Tim Tebow in the Character Dept. (At least on the field). But this hit was not dirty; and what he said after the fact is not an excuse. It's a reason, regardless of when and where he decided to implement it. Keller's teammates and others can complain all they want, but this is going to be a common scene on Sunday afternoons.

And more players will get hauled off on a stretcher because of it.

We all understand the rules about launching, head-hunting, etc. But the league has taken those rules to a whole new level in its effort to hold defensive players solely responsible for head trauma. Worse yet, that escalation is filtering down to the NCAA, and has even made its presence felt in the Southern Conference.

Here's the thing:  The problem with these changes is that football isn't intended to be completely safe. In an effort to avoid litigation--and perhaps legislation--Roger Goodell and the NFL are fundamentally changing the game. And it's not all for the better.

What happens if more knees get popped like Keller's did? Furthermore, what happens when defensive players start getting concussions from taking a kneecap to the head? Catching the full force of a kicking leg or knee could surely cause some head trauma.

I will not be at all shocked if the league mandates a "strike zone," much as they do in baseball, where a defender can actually hit and tackle. This will be nearly impossible for defensive players, especially since the most recent collective bargaining agreement severely limits their practice time for tackling.

Football to this point has been the Roman Coliseum of sports gatherings. It is brutal, violent and inherently dangerous when played as it was intended. The players know that before they engage in it even on the Midget level.

Nevertheless, this is the "new" football, full of flags and rules and regulations to keep it from being played with that original intent. It may be safer and less likely to involve lawyers, but it's just not football. You cannot make something safe out of something that is inherently dangerous.

DJ Swearinger's words and actions in a meaningless preseason game may not seem significant. But it may actually signal an even greater change in the way the game is played and legislated.

Get used to it. More guys will lose a knee in the new NFL, at least until Roger Goodell finds a way to put "tackle flags" on the players.

And don't think for a minute that he won't do it.

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