Only a few weeks into the NFL’s preseason, the league is already dealing with the devastating – if totally unintended – consequences of its public campaign against concussions and subsequent brain damage. After spending his first five seasons in the NFL with the New York Jets, tight end Dustin Keller signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.
The hope was that he would enjoy a fantastic year and earn himself a lucrative, multi-year contract following the 2013 season. However, on Saturday night, a hit from Houston Texans rookie safety D.J. Swearinger to Keller’s knee not only ended his evening, but also his season. According to ESPN.com, Keller suffered a torn ACL, MCL and PCL and also dislocated his knee.
When asked about the hit, Swearinger, a second-round pick out of South Carolina, was remorseful, but he also shined light upon the new reality of the rulebook: The massive fines and penalties that result from any sort of targeting or helmet-to-helmet contact have forced defenders to aim low.
“With the rules in this era you’ve got to hit low,” Swearinger told ESPN.com’s Tania Ganguli after Saturday night’s game against the Dolphins. “If I would have hit him high, I would have gotten a fine. So I think I made the smartest play. I’m sorry it happened and I pray he has a speedy recovery. … Right now it’s just instinct. You see somebody come across the middle, you gotta go low. You’re going to cost your team 15 yards. You’ve got to play within the rules.”
By every account, Swearinger’s hit was, indeed, very much within the rules. That is no consolation to Keller now.
“My senior year I had like three helmet-to-helmet [penalties],” Swearinger told ESPN.com. “I knew I had to change my style of play and start targeting low.”
The NFL may find itself in a no-win situation at this point. Hundreds of former players have sued the league on the grounds that not enough was done (and in fact research proving the correlation between repeated blows to the head and brain damage were covered-up) to protect them from concussions decades ago.
Keller shredded his knee as a defender worked to play within the new rules of the game.
Yes, football is a violent game, and most understand the fact that the NFL and its armies of lawyers and rulesmakers cannot protect everyone from injury.
Swearinger’s quotes, however, raise new questions as to whether the league has taken the appropriate measurements in instituting the new rules.