Our man in the US

Paolo Bandini, our man in the US, offers his weekly take on who is saying what about the NFL across the pond

The NFL has taken a number steps over the past few years to remind players that their helmets were not designed to be used as offensive weapons. Players responsible for helmet-to-helmet collisions have been punished with fines and suspensions. A new rule this season will penalise running backs who initiate contact with the crown of their head.

Not everyone, though, is sold on this approach. The Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk told NFL Total Access back in March that the only way to stop players from lowering their heads into contact would be to get rid of such equipment altogether. "Take the helmets off,” said Faulk. “Let's be honest, if you think the helmet is a weapon, take it off."

Perhaps Antonio Smith misinterpreted that remark. On Saturday the Houston Texans defensive end demonstrated just how dangerous a helmet can be when removed from a player’s head. During a preseason game against Miami, he became involved in a tussle with Richie Incognito. After ripping the Dolphins guard’s helmet off, Smith swung it violently back in the direction of his opponent’s skull.

Thankfully, he missed – Incognito recoiling to avoid the blow. The incident went unnoticed by officials on the field, taking place, as it did, away from where the play was unfolding. Instead it came to the public’s attention two days later, when it was aired on the newly-launched TV station Fox Sports One. The network’s analyst, Jay Glazer, quoted Incognito as saying Smith “could have killed me”.

That was probably an exaggeration, though the blow could certainly have done a fair bit of damage. An NFL player’s helmet weighs approximately 4lbs (1.8kg), and is designed specifically to withstand violent collisions. Delivered with enough force it could conceivably fracture bone or knock a man unconscious.

And yet, while nobody would dispute the dangerousness of the act, certain commentators were quick to defend Smith’s actions. On the NFL Network’s morning show, NFL AM, the former San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos cornerback Eric Davis argued that Icognito might have had this coming to him. 

“That’s a part of the game,” said Davis. “Icognito has a certain reputation as to the way he plays this game. I haven’t confronted him personally, so I don’t know if it’s true or not.  [But] having had confrontations with guys, there are things guys do on the field and you have to respond. Sometimes you might get a flag, sometimes you might get a fine. But there are certain things guys do to you and you respond.

“If someone does something to you to the point where you’re swinging a helmet at them, it’s probably deserved…  You might not like what I have to say about it but that’s how it is… You don’t allow guys to do certain things so that they can show up on film, and then the next week, someone else is doing it to you. You can either live with it, or you can stop it right there, and you can let that guy know ‘you’re not getting away with that’.

The line between sticking up for oneself and becoming the aggressor is a fine one to tread. Incognito does indeed have a reputation as something of a dirty player, and he had illegally grabbed Smith’s facemask more than once on Saturday.

The bad blood between these two, though, dated back to last year – when the Houston player was fined $11,000 for kicking out at the same opponent during a week one match-up. Back then Smith claimed Incognito had been twisting his leg after falling on top of him as they both reacted to a fumble.

That act of retaliation was of a different order of magnitude to what happened on Saturday. The NFL Network analyst Steve Wyche responded to Davis’s comments by referencing the former NHL player Marty McSorley, who was found guilty of assault with a weapon and given 18 months’ probation after he swung a hockey stick at Donald Brashear in 2000, causing his opponent to be knocked out cold when his head struck the ice.

Smith will not face any such serious charges. ESPN reported on Tuesday that the player, known to Houston fans as the ‘Ninja Assassin’, would be suspended for his team’s first regular-season game, as well as the remainder of preseason; he will also be fined an undisclosed amount. Smith will appeal against all parts of that verdict.

But the reality is that it could have been a lot more severe if his swing had found its target. “As one of the Texans leaders, he has to restrain himself, especially when he’s playing against someone baiting him like Incognito,” wrote the Houston Chronicle’s Randy Harvey. “Smith can talk like a Ninja all he wants. He just can’t act like one on the field.”

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Making Headlines

A few more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

• In Washington, the talk is all about RGKnee. Should the Redskins’ head coach Mike Shanahan allow Robert Griffin III to play in preseason, as the quarterback continues to recover from knee ligament surgery? The player says yes; his coach says no. In the end the decision does not belong to either of them, but instead to the orthopedist James Andrews – who has been charged by team owner Daniel Snyder with making the final call. As Mike Wise wrote for the Washington Post, none of this has stopped the speculation from thoroughly overshadowing the Redskins’ preseason preparations.

• Another knee receiving lots of attention belongs to Tom Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback hurt his left leg during a joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Wednesday, and has been wearing a brace in training sessions since. Brady has insisted the injury is nothing serious, and that the device is simply a precaution – worn in part to ease the anxieties of team owner Robert Kraft.

• The 1972 Miami Dolphins, still the only team ever to win a Super Bowl without suffering a single defeat, finally got to visit the White House this week – just 41 years after their triumph. The event made for some nice photo opportunities, but was overshadowed by the decision of three players not to attend on political grounds – a fact that seemed to garner more media attention than the visit itself.

• Suspensions have been a hot topic this week, but none more so than that handed down to Von Miller. The Denver Broncos linebacker will miss the first six games of the regular season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy.  That is an unusually severe ban for a first-time offence, a fact which may be linked to reports that the player was flagged for providing a “diluted sample”.

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Quote of the week

"I know he doesn't like when I tell people I beat him in basketball and dunked on him, and that he got upset about it” – Eli Manning trash-talks his brother Peyton on the launch episode of NBC’s new show Sports Dash. Five years younger than his brother, Eli claimed to have achieved the feat when he was still back in high school.

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Three-and-out

• Speaking of the Manning brothers, they have been popping up on US TV screens quite regularly over the last few days – and mostly in this rather special advert for DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket.

• A New York Jets fan modified his old Darelle Revis jersey this week to stage a personal protest during the team’s preseason win over Jacksonville.  Various outlets in the Big Apple, meanwhile, are reporting that Geno Smith will start at quarterback for the Jets so long as his ankle stays healthy. No word as yet on how greatly this decision was influenced by Mark Sanchez’s increasingly bold facial hair.

• Fox’s sideline reporter Pam Oliver got hit by a football during the Colts’ win over the New York Giants on Sunday. This clip has been shown so frequently over the two days since that it might already have been seen by more fans than the game itself.