How safeties are evolving amid helmet rule

The Panthers’ Brenton Bersin (11) is upended by the Vikings’ <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24759/" data-ylk="slk:Andrew Sendejo">Andrew Sendejo</a> (34) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/28433/" data-ylk="slk:Eric Kendricks">Eric Kendricks</a> in a December game last season. (AP)

The Panthers’ Brenton Bersin (11) is upended by the Vikings’ Andrew Sendejo (34) and Eric Kendricks in a December game last season. (AP)

The feeling is indescribable, Andrew Sendejo says, so much so that when recently asked to explain the thrill he gets from hitting another human cleanly, with all his might, he initially struggles to find the words.

“Um … not really,” the eighth-year safety for the Minnesota Vikings says, after a few seconds of contemplation. “You hear the crowd go, ‘Ohhh,’ then you hear the sounds, your teammates cheering you, and dapping you up.”

The feeling is so intense that the ensuing adrenaline rush masks the pain of impact that comes from the hit.

“It’s just … it’s a good hurt, you know,” Sendejo says, “because you were the hammer as opposed to the nail.”

Sendejo, 30, is one of the NFL’s hardest hitters, a man who found his way to football after fouling out of seemingly every basketball game and being red-carded in seemingly every soccer match as a youth. So yes, the man is an enforcer, in the truest sense of the word, and he is the latest in a long, proud lineage of big-hitting safeties who came to define the position over the past 50 years.

Throughout the ’80s, 90s and 2000s, men cut from Sendejo’s ilk — think Ronnie Lott, John Lynch, Jack Tatum, Steve Atwater and most recently, Sean Taylor — were respected for the way they played, with their aggression and punishing style often changing the way offenses attacked, as they feared needlessly putting sometimes-squeamish skill players in harm’s way.

Enforcers were even celebrated by the league, which allowed NFL Films to include many of those players’ biggest hits on countless VHS tapes and DVDs over the years, all of which only cultivated a generation of fans who became attracted to the game due to its brutality.

Yet, if the NFL has its way these days, men like Sendejo — who recently wore a “Make Football Violent Again” hat, despite his inherent determination to play the game the right way and within the rules — might also be the last of a dying breed.

For the better part of this decade, the NFL, almost certainly spooked by the furor over concussions, has taken significant steps to make the game less violent, culminating with the passage of the new lowering-of-the-helmet rule in March, which allows for ejections if an official decides a player, offensive or defensive, lowered his head upon contact when he didn’t have to.

The rule has been met with widespread disdain from players, fans, coaches and media alike. Amid the backlash, which has stemmed from some questionable penalties on normal-looking hits this preseason, the NFL’s competition committee revisited the rule, ultimately announcing on Aug. 22 that nothing would change.

Yet, not everyone is convinced that’s a bad thing, or even a death knell for the enforcers of the world. That includes one notorious big hitter from the past, the most fined player in NFL history whose outstanding “A Football Life” episode included a particularly stirring montage from his playing days in which he used the phrase “Hit ’em in the mouth” four times in an eight-second span.

This man, NBC football analyst and former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison, says the title of “enforcer” is evolving, not dying, and he’s flat-out glad it’s happening.

“I get it,” Harrison recently told Yahoo Sports. “I completely get it.”

How the rule is opening up offenses

Harrison, 45, has been retired for 10 years now, and the game has changed significantly. The way he played was epically captured during the follow sequence of his “A Football Life” episode, when he talked about his mentality when he stepped between the white lines.

“Yeah, you can have respect for that opponent,” Harrison said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to hit that opponent in the mouth.”

(Cue a flashback to Harrison in a San Diego Chargers jersey.)

“Big game today. Physical. Hit ’em right in the mouth.”

(Cue another Harrison flashback.)

“We gon’ hit ’em right in the mouth.”

(Cue another Harrison flashback.)

“Hit ’em hard, hit ’em right in the mouth.”

That was the way Harrison and others played. Aim at the receiver’s chin, run through the man, deliver the blow. Stand up, hover over them and talk trash. Do that long enough, as Harrison did, and before long, quarterbacks and coordinators stop calling the deep digs, post and crossing routes that can gouge a defense, all because of the threat the fumble-forcing, injury-inducing hitter provided.

“It was a mentality, a weapon, when you had physical guys that could intimidate,” Harrison explained. “But now, that intimidation factor has kind of gone away.”

Harrison can tell, just by watching a spat of preseason games. Over the past month, he has seen several big hitters tackle with a little more trepidation, all because they don’t want to be flagged.

“What I also see is guys thinking, ‘OK, did I hit him OK? Almost like [they’re] second-guessing themselves,” he added.

The flip side to that, Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said, is that he has noticed offenses becoming more aggressive over the years, as quarterbacks now seem to be more prone to throw into certain coverages in the middle of the field.

“Every time the defenseless receiver comes into [your zone], it allows [offenses] to attempt throws they usually wouldn’t back in the day because when he came across that middle, the reaction by that defensive back was going to be more violent,” Edwards said.

Harrison agreed.

“I do believe you’re going to see receivers put up more big numbers because these guys that were scary cats — like we [used to] call them — that came across the middle, offenses know that they don’t have to worry about a guy really hitting them and being an enforcer,” Harrison said.

And as you might imagine, he doesn’t love that.

“I think physicality is something that really made the NFL special, and I can see the frustration by a lot of fans and players,” Harrison said. “But those days of the big, physical guy that’s intimidating, that scares you to come across the middle, those days are gone.”

Rodney Harrison wasn’t afraid to hit ’em in the mouth, to the chagrin of many in the NFL during his playing days. (Getty Images)

Rodney Harrison wasn’t afraid to hit ’em in the mouth, to the chagrin of many in the NFL during his playing days. (Getty Images)

Rodney Harrison wasn’t afraid to hit ’em in the mouth, to the chagrin of many in the NFL during his playing days. (Getty Images)

A defense of the new rule, from an unlikely source

In an interesting twist, Harrison is good with that trade-off. As much pride as he takes in the way he played, he says the NFL is doing young players a favor.

“When you’re 25 and 30 years old, you have this mentality [of], ‘I’m young, and strong, I’m invincible,’” Harrison explained. “But when you get [to be] my age, and you’re 10 years removed from the National Football League, and you wake up and you start feeling kind of dizzy or [you’re] having an off day, my head is bothering me, you get it, you understand what the NFL is trying to do.”

Harrison isn’t saying the NFL is making these changes because it sincerely cares about the players; that much he made clear. But he wants players to have a strong quality of life when they reach his age.

“Absolutely I support it,” Harrison said, when asked directly if he supports the rule. “I totally, totally get it … making millions, winning Super Bowls, being an All-Pro, that does not matter if you don’t have the quality of life, if you’re waking up and you’re not feeling good.

“I golf with guys that have head injuries … and it’s no fun seeing some of your buddies struggle.”

Harrison reconciles the conflicting duality of his beliefs — that he misses old-school hitting, but understands why things must change — by making a convincing case that football can still be fun without some of the vicious, helmet-leading hits he and so many others built their careers on.

For one, he thinks fans who miss those hits can still enjoy football since the athleticism of today’s players far exceeds those from his day.

“You look at the size and athleticism of Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, the type of catches they make, these guys are just freak athletes,” Harrison said.

He’s not sold that the helmet rule will completely eliminate enforcers from the game, and he’s not alone, on that front as both Edwards and Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin agreed that there’s still a need for physical safeties.

“Big hitters are powerful and can uncork on you, but they don’t have to lead with their helmets — they can hit with their shoulder pads,” Austin said.

He even chuckled at the notion of the enforcer dying, adding that having strong tacklers at safety is still an “extremely” important part of playing defense. 

“In our defense, I want a safety that, when push comes to shove, I can put him down in the box and he’s going to make something happen,” Austin said. “If there’s somebody coming across the middle and he has an opportunity to hit cleanly and with force, I want him in there.”

Evolution is coming, and soon

There’s no doubt evolution is coming to the safety position. Teams are throwing more than ever, and if Harrison played today, he believes he’d be known more for his underrated coverage skills than his hard-hitting.

That said, he says the next prototype of enforcer safeties will be versatile, athletic and strong players who can blitz, neutralize athletic tight ends in coverage and cover on the back end. Think of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Berry, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, the Seattle Seahawks’ Earl Thomas and Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James, he added.

“You’ll see more athletic freaks, more corners moving to safety,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be a guy that’s smart, a guy that can play multiple positions.”

The Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins rocked wideout Brandin Cooks in the last Super Bowl . (AP)

The Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins rocked wideout Brandin Cooks in the last Super Bowl . (AP)

The Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins rocked wideout Brandin Cooks in the last Super Bowl . (AP)

And while receivers can operate across the middle with more freedom, they won’t be running with impunity. As defensive players adapt to the rule, there’s a real chance more skill players get lower-body injuries as defenders opt to aim lower in lieu of risking a penalty.

“Anybody that came across the middle, I wouldn’t even think about hitting him in the head or neck or even shoulders,” Harrison said. “Everything would be centered from their core, right around to their knees.”

Besides, at the end of the day, there’s still plenty of NFL players with an old-school mentality. Old habits die hard, and changes like this don’t happen overnight.

Sendejo, for one, says players will do their best to play by the rules, though they’ll still be focused primarily on doing their jobs.

“I definitely think it’s going to affect some guys a little bit, as far as how they tackle,” Sendejo said. “But if you’re a physical player, you’re not just going to lose that because you have to take your head out of it — you’re still going to be physical, by nature.

“So I think those guys on every team are still going to exist.”

This means there will still be plenty of football players around the league who live for the thrill of crashing into another man in front of 70,000 roaring fans, though admittedly, each big hit might now be followed with anxiety afterward, as they glance at the refs and hope the yellow flag doesn’t come bounding out of their hand.

“If you get a good, clean hit with the new rules … and there’s no penalty, [you’ll] just be thankful,” Sendejo said.

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