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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