In the NFL, hits to knees take back seat

Here is my Sunday article on hits to knees in the NFL. This article runs in the Press Democrat’s Sunday sports section.

SANTA CLARA — Is it possible the NFL’s efforts to eliminate head-to-head hits have made the game more dangerous?

If a defender hits someone in the head or even as low at the shoulder line, that’s a 15-yard penalty, probably a fine and maybe a suspension, too. But if a defender hits someone in the knee, like Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward hit New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski last Sunday, launched his helmet into the side of Gronkowski’s knee and tore Gronkowski’s ACL and MCL — no penalty, no fine, no nothing.

The NFL is on pace to have 135 season-ending knee injuries this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Last season, there were 121 season-ending knee injuries. Two seasons ago, there were 93. The NFL seems to be trading an increase in ACL, MCL, PCL and LCL injuries for concussion awareness and hopefully reduced head trauma.

Does that trade make players safer?

Here’s what Jim Harbaugh says: “I think it’s a safer game than it was back when I played. I think it’s safer than it was two, three, four years ago.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano doesn’t want to say.

“I think that’s a pretty complicated subject,” he said via a conference call. “ I’m not going to get into the details of what’s going on.”

The NFL puts pressure on coaches not to complain publicly about rules, but players tend to speak candidly. Take former 49er and current Buccaneers free safety Dashon Goldson. Does he think the NFL is making players safer?

“No way,” he said on a conference call. “With all these fines, they’ve got players scared to get penalized. What it’s causing these guys to do is go low and blow out knees. I’d rather get hit up high and be dizzy for a play than get hit low and be out for a whole season.”

That may seem strange, but most players feel that way. Carlos Rogers feels that way. So does Donte Whitner.

“I guarantee,” Whitner said, “if you ask 99.9 percent of the players around the league if they’d rather be hit high, have a concussion and be out for a week or two, or be hit low and have a career-ending injury or something that puts you out for the season, 99.9 percent would take the concussion over that.

“You’re forcing guys to hit guys low and end guys’ careers. You see that with Gronkowski. You’ve seen that with Dustin Keller. You’ve seen that with Randall Cobb. You’re really giving us no choice.”

Forcing defenders to hit low is just as dangerous for the hitters as it is for the guys getting hit.

“A lot of times when you go low,” Whitner said, “you take a knee to the helmet and get a concussion. A lot of guys are getting concussions and concussing themselves. It’s really unfortunate.”

This already has happened to 49ers rookie free safety Eric Reid. He went low to tackle Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert. Tolbert kneed Reid in the head and Reid was out cold for minutes.

“I don’t really know if there is a middle ground,” Whitner said. “You can’t hit high, so you have to hit low. I don’t know what to do about it.”

Schiano thinks there is a middle ground: “We are really working hard to pinpoint our target — it’s in that midsection and not above the shoulder line,” he said. “That’s where you can make a good tackle and that’s the way you teach to tackle. We continue to try to get our entire defensive football team in line with that.”

But former Raiders cornerback Eric Allen says it’s not that simple: “Gronkowski is 6-foot-6, 250-something pounds — there is no way Ward was going to be able to make that tackle if he went high,” Allen told ESPN. “If he tries to hit him up high, he’s probably going to get run over, and if he goes too low, Gronkowski would be able to jump over him.”

Confining defensive players to a tiny strike zone consisting of the ball-carrier’s midsection would give the offense a tremendous advantage. There would be more missed tackles and sloppier games. Maybe you think that’s not the point. It’s not about the sloppiness of the game or where a player would rather get hit. It’s about limiting head hits and hopefully preventing long-term brain damage.

But permanent loss of mobility is a high price to pay for increased brain safety. Jim Otto had to have his leg amputated in 2007 due to all the knee injuries he suffered when he played. Former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams has a knee the size of a soccer ball. He may need an amputation, as well. Even Jim Harbaugh walks with a limp, and he never had a catastrophic knee injury.

Up to now, why has the league been more concerned with heads than knees?

Consider that in August the league agreed to pay a $765 million settlement to more than 4,500 former players — $5 million for each player suffering from Alzheimer’s, $4 million for each player with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and $3 million for dementia. Those players sued the NFL for not properly informing them of the dangers posed by concussions.

Whether it understands this or not, the league has moved the dangerous strike zone from the head to knees and legs. So far it hasn’t had to pay up.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers“ blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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  1. Damned if you do damned if you don’t. The same guys complaining about the rules now will be the first to sue down the road.

  2. “…A lot of times when you go low,” Whitner said, “you take a knee to the helmet and get a concussion…”

    I remember someone saying the same thing about Roger Craig

    You were apparently nuts if you went low on him ..

  3. You take a bad shot to the knee the worst case scenario is your NFL career is over and you go on to live the rest of your life. Bad shot to the head and your living with scrambled eggs in your dome for the rest of your life.

    1. Very true but think about this: one concussion and you miss a game and live to play the next game and the next and keep making millions that set up your grandchildren to live happy. Blow out your knee and now you have to find a new career with no degree. The choice, if you had to go to each extreme, is to be rich and function fairly normal into your fifties till your brain starts to go or have a solid mind but no security as you live paycheck to paycheck. I for one would take the riches. Who kniwd , 20 years from now breakthroughs in science can really solve problems… usually its the rich that benefit from this.

      1. Dude
        Agree with you to a point. that point being GET A DEGREE while ur on campus anyways doing winter and summer workouts. College players get like 1 week off the entire year so since ul be there most summers anyways why not take a real class instead of golf or music appreciation and get a degree to fall back on when you inevitably get hurt

  4. I actually was quite happy, my son only played one season in High School football, he had one concussion and at least 2 or 3 outside of football, your knee can go out anytime, I shredded my patella, playing softball, 5 years. I don’t walk with a limp but my knee is never the same as it once was.

    1. Having experienced both, let me call this a no brainier. Whoops! I’ve outed myself as a dingbat, hahaha. Seriously, the brain injury made me feel like a prisoner in my own body, and I felt like my identity had been stolen. Helpless feeling. Nobody wants that, and an aging NFL vet can look forward to it getting worse, not better.

  5. Pretty good coverage of a very important issue. The league is incentivized by the litigation risks, and I think they are making legitimate attempts to make an unsafe game safer. Good effort but a work in progress. The rules need to be dialed in a bit.
    The strike zone idea is fine, but the pitcher in baseball has a defined target, but in football it’s a moving target. If I approach a guy and he ducks down to cover up, he’s just obscured his strike zone giving me only helmet and shoulders to hit. How will the Refs rule on a hit to the shoulders? If I hit that guy in the shoulders is it possible, at game speed, to not touch his helmet?
    All year we’ve heard commentators noting poor tackling; yeah, wtf can we expect? That guy that hit 260lb Gronk weighs what? 190? And a 6’5″ LB trying to tackle 5’9″ Gore is supposed to get under his pads? And Gore has that LB coming at him, he’s not going to cover up to protect himself, his momentum, and the ball security?
    The NFL needs to keep evolving the rules and the guidelines for the Refs’ on-field interpretation.

  6. Good read Grant.
    There are no real winners in this endeavor. A high hit will result in a penalty and trying to tackle low results in a smaller player either getting jumped or bulled over by a larger player.

    It would be virtually impossible for the NFL to enact and then enforce a rule that only allows for players to be tackled in a 2 -3 foot (strike-zone) area between mid-chest to upper thigh levels.
    Players must react quickly when making a tackle, taking the time to analyze and aiming for a strike zone does not allow them that luxury. Also, with the offensive player making every effort not to get hit, the window or strike zone for the defense becomes smaller.
    If the DB trying to make a strike zone tackle on a leaping VD last week would have made the tackle there’s a good chance he gets hurt or results in a concussion because his strike zone tackle would have put his head in direct contact with VD’ knees.

    The NFL needs to create state of the art safety equipment as well as field conditions that make it safe for it’s players.
    The Dustin Keller injury resulted in his shoe locking onto the field at the exact moment of the hit to his knee area. Here’s a thought; Could wearing a knee brace have helped Keller or maybe a safer field that gives way when a certain amount of stress is placed on it could have helped as well?

    On Reid’ tackle against Tolbert, it looked as if Reid was going to make a hit in the strike zone area until Tolbert ducked down to protect his body thereby resulting in helmet to helmet collision and Reid’ concussion.

    In this case, even if strike zone tackling is being taught in the high school level (which has been discussed and admonished by some football talking-heads to promote safety at the younger level), it would not have helped Reid because Tolbert changed the strike zone when he ducked his head.

    The NFL must incorporate safety equipment that works in conjunction with their rules on tackling.
    The NFL needs to find a medium that appeases its coffers, players, and it’s fans and that is daunting task.

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