NEW YORK — Seven weeks after the NFL's crackdown on illegal hits, players remain confused about what they can and can't do. The league says there should be no such uncertainty.
Many players questioned by The Associated Press over the past week believe there's a lack of consistency in calls; don't understand the disciplinary process through which fines are handed out; say the punishments often don't fit the crime; and even suggest some players are being targeted by game officials and the NFL.
NFL senior vice president of football operations Ray Anderson replied that the process is clear and transparent, and any favoritism "is not something we would tolerate or condone."
The AP talked to three dozen players across the league about a variety of topics related to the NFL's move to ramp up punishment for flagrant fouls ever since Oct. 17, when three such instances resulted in hefty fines and the threat of suspension. Most players surveyed believe the league is likely to suspend a player for an egregious hit at some point.
But they aren't sure what an egregious hit is.
"I think they're inconsistent," said Saints defensive end Will Smith, an assistant player representative to the NFL Players Association. "You see a guy get punched in the face and get fined $25,000 and not suspended, but then you see a guy mush a guy with a helmet on and get fined the exact same thing. So I think the NFL will have to clear up the way they're fining because they're not really fair."
Added Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year:
"It's hard to just change something overnight, something you've been taught for so long. To me, it seems like ... a guy gets hit and they're going off the outcome of the play. If a guy ends up hurt or seems a little out of it, woozy or whatever, then all of a sudden it's a personal foul and a $50,000 or $75,000 fine or whatever it is.
"I know it's not the intent of every player to go out and knock a player out. Your job is to go get the ball and try to get the ball out if you can. I think they're taking that away from guys."
The league is taking away lots of money from players, with fines climbing to $40,000 or more for flagrant fouls. Last week, Texans safety Bernard Pollard was docked $40,000 for unnecessary roughness against Justin Gage of the Titans.
Anderson said every player in the NFL is capable of adjusting to the way the league wants games played – and always has wanted them played.
"Very frankly, I think every player at this level is so skillful and intelligent that if they want to adapt, they can and will adapt," Anderson said. "I'm not concerned we have any players, including ones with repeat violations, who can't adapt. If they want to adapt, they can, and there are examples of that."
Indeed, NFL owners will be shown a video next week at their meetings in Dallas that features clean hits in games played since the crackdown on flagrant fouls. Anderson said the video "clearly shows players making adjustments" and that some former rule-breakers "have gotten the message" when it comes to hitting defenseless players.
But the message many on the field seem to have gotten is muddled. They cite a video sent to the 32 teams and narrated by Anderson that displays legal and illegal tackles, saying it cleared up nothing.
"It's a hard situation for everybody to figure out," said Steelers safety and player rep Ryan Clark. "It seems like every week there is a new explanation for why a penalty is called."
Jets safety Eric Smith was suspended for one game in 2008 for launching himself into Anquan Boldin, then with the Cardinals, in the end zone. So Smith should be clear on what's a violation and what's acceptable.
"What we understand is leading with the crown of the head, which we've always known" is illegal, he said. "We have no idea what's a defenseless receiver or player.
"Sometimes on a helmet-to-helmet hit, they've got to understand that your shoulders are next to your head and it's hard to keep the helmet out of it when someone moves as you are making the hit. And you're going so fast and usually at an angle."
That's another issue for players: the speed of the game versus the speed at which the tackles are being reviewed by Anderson, his assistant Merton Hanks, and director of officiating Carl Johnson.
"It's not as easy for us to play the game. We don't play the game with a remote in our hand, to be able to rewind and slow down," said Broncos veteran safety Brian Dawkins, one of the hardest hitters in football. "The game has never been played like that. It will never be played like that. There will always be huge collisions, there will always be things that are going to happen split-second. It's just one of those things, a part of the game. It's a physical, in-your-face sport."
The league isn't interested in taking away the physical aspects of the game. Anderson believes that, generally, the players have adhered to the rules and emphasizes there haven't been any fouls worthy of handing out a suspension.
He warns, though, that the threat of suspension is not lip service, and that players already fined for various violations are treading dangerous ground if they break more rules.
"We hope that time to does not come, but repeat offenders are at higher risk than other folks," he said.
Some players even believe certain peers are being watched far more closely than others, with Steelers star linebacker James Harrison mentioned most often. Harrison has been fined $125,00 for hits on the Browns' Mohamed Massaquoi, Titans quarterback Vince Young, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Harrison briefly thought about retiring in October after he was nailed for $75,000 for hits in the Cleveland game.
"Defensive players do feel targeted in this situation," Clark said. "We feel the NFL is going to protect quarterbacks. They're going to protect all of them – except ours. You see the way (Ben Roethlisberger is) bent up after plays. James (Harrison) makes football plays, before-the-whistle plays, and they're being called.
"It's getting tough on James, I don't know what to tell him."
Anderson would tell him much the same thing Commissioner Roger Goodell has told Harrison when they met following the heaviest of Harrison's fines.
"We understand the utmost importance of player safety and particularly to prevent head trauma and neck trauma," Anderson said. "We have dedicated ourselves to do that and will not relent in protecting against those illegal hits."
As for any favoritism, Anderson's voice spiked as he said, "The integrity of the game is first and foremost. Under this commissioner and leadership of this office, that is not something we would tolerate or condone. If we ever believed any of that was going on, we would come down with a vengeance."
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Jaime Aron in Dallas, and Sports Writers Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh, Brett Martel in New Orleans and Chris Jenkins in Milwaukee contributed to this story.