There’s a popular saying among coaches—especially secondary coaches. It goes “Trust your eyes.” It means believe what you’re witnessing, don’t over manipulate a thing in order to make it into something it isn’t.
In the fourth quarter of the Raiders-Steelers game, Steelers safety Ryan Mundy saw Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey run a shallow post route into the end zone. Mundy closed on Heyward-Bey and in so doing collided with the receiver and landed a blow to Heyward-Bey’s chest and shoulder area. The ball came loose and Mundy celebrated. He did what was expected of him. He did exactly what he should have done.
But as Heyward-Bey laid there, motionless, save for his arm which floated to the turf in a palsied state, we saw something else. What we saw, or more importantly, what we heard was another round of the interminable discussion about helmet to helmet contact and intentional violence and everything that accompanies football in this century.
I was excited to see this game. It’s not because I’m fan of either team, but a game in Oakland Alameda Coliseum between the Steers and Raiders invoked images of Sundays past. If you are a child of the seventies, the mention of Steelers vs. Raiders defined for you the clash of the titans.
Whenever those teams met, there was something at stake. If it was in January, then it was most likely a berth in the Super Bowl. And even if that wasn’t the case, there was a turf war to be won. Part of it was for AFC dominance, but another smaller part was a private and personal battle between Steelers receiver Lynn Swann and the Oakland secondary.
Swann was of boundless energy and leaping ability. While the Steelers defense and running game reflected the cold, hard industrial grit of the city they played, Swann brought an element of grace to the mix. He was the foremost artist of the leaping catch and everything he did seem to lend itself to a slow motion highlight.
Swann’s nemeses,’ the Raiders secondary, were the most colorful of characters in ‘ball—George Atkinson, Willie Brown, Skip Thomas, and of course, Jack Tatum. Tatum and company took great pleasure in beating up on Swann. Steelers coach Chuck Noll called them a “criminal element.” But the audience just watched, raising neither an objection nor a brow. We trusted our eyes. This was the game we knew.
In order to fully discuss what we saw yesterday we should talk about what we saw that one day back in August of 1978. That’s the day this conversation began, albeit in hushed tones. That was the day Jack Tatum hit Darryl Stingley. It was in the same stadium— Oakland Alameda Coliseum, during a preseason game against the Patriots.
Stingley ran a deep crossing route and Tatum closed on him. The ball was out of Stingley’s reach. Now, speaking as a former defensive back, in some instances you have enough time and space to make a choice. But other times you don’t. Sometimes when you’re committed to closing on an object—like the football, or closing on a destination—like the place to which the ball is going, you have no choice but to keep moving. Newton’s first law of physics dictates that a collision is inevitable.
But in some instances there is enough time and space to break down or to redirect your course. A decision is made.
Ryan Mundy's reaction to the ball led to a perfectly legal collision.
I’ve watched that fateful play many times. Tatum had a choice. He could have pulled off. But he didn’t. He kept running and smashed into Stingley’s chest. But here’s the rub. Tatum didn’t use the crown of his helmet to purposely compress Stingley’s vertebrae. He just ran through him, the way any defender is taught to run through his target. He didn’t want to paralyze Stingley. That was the unfortunate result.
I know what I saw yesterday in Oakland. The hit was not the least bit dirty or illegal. I don’t want to hear all that caterwauling about flags being thrown. Neither replacement officials nor their full time counterparts have a place in this conversation. Mundy simply reacted to the ball and hit the receiver. In going after the ball Mundy hit Heyward-Bey in his chest, directly on the ball. Of course his helmet grazed Heyward-Bey’s facemask. Unless a person’s head operates independently from his neck and shoulders like Mr. Fantastic himself, his head will always be a part of the collision.
My fear is that we didn’t all see the same thing yesterday. My fear is that this latest frightening episode will drive us more deeply into an ever increased state of hysteria and that commissioner Goodell will see that hysteria and raise it with some of his own. While there’s something humane in our desire to legislate violence, our attempt to legislate the basic laws of human physiology is at best futile, and at worst, stupid.
The game hasn’t changed as much as we have. I’ve said that before and I’ll probably say it again. The fantasy football culture has warped our sense of reality. It’s fine to see this game in terms of numbers and statistical measurements. But maybe fantasy sports are best left on the baseball diamond. Baseball is a timeless pursuit where there’s no clock, violence, or sense of urgency. There’s a romantic element that feeds the fantasy bent.
Batting averages are a suitable topic of obsession because hitting a baseball is probably the most difficult thing to accomplish in all of sports. In football, hitting another man isn’t so hard. But hitting him well and hitting him true, separating him from the ball while sparing his health and your own is about as difficult a task as there is. And it’s a hazardous pursuit. Always has been.
I’m sure we all see that.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @AlanGrant_NFL