A day after an unusual series of player head injuries shocked football fans and alarmed the sport's officials, the NFL vowed Monday to crack down on dangerous, illegal hits with more severe disciplinary measures.
Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of football operations, said players could be suspended without pay for illegal hits to an opponent's head — even for a first offense — a stronger measure than the fines that apparently have had little effect. The new sanctions will begin this weekend.
"We need to dispel the notion that you get a free pass for a first offense," Anderson said. "We're going to another level of accountability."
Sunday's series of incidents came at a time of heightened concern over head injuries from youth leagues to the pros, and a day after a Rutgers University player was paralyzed below the neck while making a tackle on a kickoff return. Today, officials from all levels of hockey will meet, trying to reduce the frequency of head injuries in that sport.
Some of Sunday's NFL victims:
• Redskins tight end Chris Cooley had a concussion against Indianapolis but stayed in the game; he left at halftime.
• Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson suffered concussions in a collision. Jackson doesn't remember the hit and is likely to miss at least one game.
• Two Browns receivers, Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, suffered head injuries on second-quarter hits by Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
• Lions linebacker Zack Follett was hospitalized overnight after a helmet-to-helmet hit with Giants rookie Jason Pierre-Paul, a former USF standout, on a kickoff. The NFL's crackdown would not apply to that hit.
"We feel compelled to be aggressive and proactive," Anderson said. "We don't want another Darryl Stingley on one of our fields."
Stingley, a wide receiver with the Patriots, was paralyzed in an on-field collision with Oakland safety Jack Tatum during a preseason game in August 1978. Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and died in 2007 at 55. Tatum's hit was legal under the rules at the time.
The recent violence and injuries brought calls for action from several quarters, including former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, a ferocious tackler during his years in the league.
"You didn't get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand," Harrison said on NBC's Sunday Night Football. "You got my attention when I got suspended and … I disappointed my teammates (by) not being there."
Anderson said he and other league officials paid attention to Harrison's comments and similar ones by former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy on the same telecast.
The NFL has enacted rules in recent years to protect players, including quarterbacks and receivers who are deemed to be defenseless on plays.
"When you're playing football (and) you're going to deliver a hit, it's not like you really try to hit somebody in the head," Redskins fullback Mike Sellers said. "It's just you're trying to deliver a blow, and sometimes it just ends up like that. Hopefully the league will be a little more lenient on some of this stuff and not crack down as hard as they've been."
But Anderson said: "I believe players can adjust their play if they really want to."