Finally, the NFL has decided to get tough with the headhunters. I was starting to think it was going to take a funeral to get Roger Goodell's full attention.
League officials have announced that players delivering the kind of helmet-to-helmet hit that leveled Todd Heap in Sunday's game between the Ravens and New England Patriots might now be eligible for immediate suspension, which would be a nice start if it didn't come wrapped in a mixed message.
In the case of Brandon Meriweather, who clearly and intentionally transformed himself into a missile directed at the head of a helpless Heap, it should have been so immediate that he should have been dressed and headed home at halftime. Instead, he was hit with a $50,000 fine and no suspension Tuesday, so the immediate-suspension part of this new policy apparently starts next week or only applies to hits that end in a helicopter ride.
There's no place in professional football for that kind of cheap shot, just as there is no place in baseball for a 96-mph purpose pitch to the earflap. There is enough danger in the sport without the danger of some brute intentionally putting an opponent into a coma -- or a wheelchair -- just to make the highlights on "SportsCenter."
Sure, I've heard some former players talking about the wimpification of the game (and, yes, I made that word up). In some cases, the league actually has gone too far to protect certain players, which explains that ridiculous personal foul call on Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs after a textbook quarterback takedown against the Cincinnati Bengals.
This is different. This is about an attitude among some defensive players that already has led to tragedy in the NFL, though you have to be of my generation to remember the hit that left Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley dependent on a motorized chair for the rest of his life.
Football is a violent game and the players accept a high level of risk to play it at the professional level, but it's still fair to ask why -- up to now, at least -- the league seemed more concerned with the negative impact of a choreographed end-zone celebration than the concussive consequence of a vicious helmet hit.
Clearly, the NFL is seriously conflicted about reining in intentional violence, or we wouldn't just now be talking about suspensions for the football version of aggravated assault. This is a league that once fined Randy Moss $25,000 for squirting a water bottle at an official but only now seems to be coming to grips with the danger of somebody trying to rearrange an opponent's brain.
Goodell obviously feels that he has to walk a fine line to reinforce the perception that he cares about player safety while avoiding the perception that he's going overboard to make football a kinder, gentler sport.
That was a legitimate concern back when Tom Brady could get a personal foul call upon request, but there isn't a big gray area here. The difference between a cruel, unnecessary helmet hit and a bone-jarring-but-legal block or tackle isn't tough to ascertain, and league officials have days to review multiple camera angles.
When the rules are clear and consistently applied, the players will adapt and the game will go on with no great loss of entertainment value.
I still think Goodell and NFL vice president of operations Ray Anderson need to do more than just insist on stricter enforcement of the existing rules. The possibility of an immediate suspension is a step in the right direction, but I'd like to see the league take that approach a step further.
In my perfect world, if a player is found guilty of an egregious hit that injures or affects the availability of an opposing player, I think he should also be suspended for the next game between those two teams to make up for the competitive advantage gained from the illegal act.
If I were the emperor of the world, I'd go even further in cases where a grossly malicious hit -- and I'm not talking about a close judgment call here -- causes a significant injury. I would make the suspension equal the time lost by the injured player, but I recognize the reasons that would be impractical. I also am fairly sure my evil plan for world domination will ultimately fail, so it's really a moot point.
Bottom line: The NFL got a little safer this week, and that's a good thing. The next step should be extending the helmet-to-helmet prohibition to hits on players other than quarterbacks and receivers. That would be even better.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.