George Iloka and Mike Mitchell are right to be concerned about the direction of football

Since the Steelers beat the Bengals in an extremely physical game Monday night, I've been trying to figure out how to say what George Iloka said Thursday.

After Steelers safety Mike Mitchell expressed concerns about turning the NFL into a flag football league, Iloka doubled down even though his suspension for a high hit on Antonio Brown was overturned.

"I personally think, like Mike said, if you start suspending guys for that, the league is going to turn into a brand of football in which, if you're worried about losing viewers, you'll lose a lot more," Iloka said.

"Fines. Understandable. Repeat offenders. Understandable. Plays away from the ball, off ball incidents, post-whistle kind of things. OK, all right. Those might warrant suspensions if deemed unreasonable." 

Iloka, who was penalized 15 yards for “unnecessary roughness” after he hit Brown on a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter Monday night, correctly drew a line between what should be legal and what should not.

"But on-ball kind of plays, which are football plays, to suspend for that is going to set a bad precedent to where guys are just going to pull up and give away things," Iloka added. 

In some ways, changes to the rules have forced defensive players to play a more sound brand of ball, but they are still left with some unfair choices — like letting a player catch a ball if the only place to hit him was in the upper chest and neck area because that might lead to an accidental head hit (I’m thinking of the Jabrill Peppers hit against the Bengals two weeks ago as an example).

"Quarterbacks are going to throw into tight windows and you'll be in that situation a lot," Iloka said. "It feels like what am I supposed to do? What would you want your safety on your team to do? Just concede us a touchdown?

"That's not how anybody should want the game to be," he added. "Not a fan, not a coach and not a player. Period. I think that's what (Mitchell) sees. He's like man, if you're suspended after football plays, what are we doing? We're not playing football anymore. It's just flag football. If you want a flag, go to your local college intramural league, not what we're doing here."

Now, I’m trying not to be a caveman here.

I admit there are hits I grew up celebrating that are literally “unnecessary,” and Mitchell and Iloka have both gone over the line at times themselves.

The game will go on without some of those highlight hits. Maybe when they’re gone, they won’t really be missed.

But what about plays that can’t be made without contact to the head or neck area?

Do we really want to tell defensive players to concede catches because they aren’t sure exactly where their target is going to be in another second or two?

Or, as Iloka pointed out, to have more plays like Monday night when William Jackson III pulled up at the sideline because he was afraid of getting a personal foul for hitting Le’Veon Bell out of bounds?

I don’t think so.

Undoubtedly, safety is important, both for the current players and for future players and of course their parents. 

To that end, the most significant change so far is how concussions are dealt with after the fact.

Most if not all of the ex-players who have made news for having health issues played not just before we started cracking down on the high hits but also before anyone thought much about going right back into a game despite possibly having a concussion.

And even if they stayed out that day, how many returned to play way too soon the following week?

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I believe that alone will change outcomes significantly, but obviously there is much more research to be done.

Even fairly early in the research process, there have been some encouraging signs in terms of treating brain injuries in the long term, but that’s another discussion. And of course it doesn’t mean we should start treating brain injuries like torn knee ligaments or broken arms.

Regardless, parents aren’t dumb. They know the game is still violent and dangerous and that only so much can be done to change that without creating a new sport.

It has survived for a dozen or so decades despite this knowledge.

So if we’ve reached a crossroads with these high hits, what do we do? 

I believe most of the truly unnecessary hits have been weeded out and now we’re at a point of diminishing returns in which the rules are taking away from the action.

Players like Mitchell and Iloka have made it pretty clear they are going to choose to risk a penalty if they feel they have no other choice.

It’s time to listen to them.

College football’s targeting rule does more harm than good because the way it is written opens the door to too many incidental plays being major penalties.

The NFL should avoid that.

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Does that mean there are no high hits, intentional or not, that should result in the loss of playing time? No.

But let’s slow down the process.

An ejection is too serious to be handled in a matter of seconds.

Obviously replay officials are not mind-readers, but knowledgeable football people (such as former players) can via film do a reasonably effective job telling the difference between plays that can be made without gratuitous head contact and those that can’t.

Give them the chance to do that — after the game.

If they decide such contact was unavoidable because of the flight of the ball or movements by the receiver, then there should be no punishment.

If it wasn’t necessary or was avoidable, suspend a player for the next game.

That’s much better than trying to guess in the moment what happened live and then having just a minute or two to determine if such an important call was correct.

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Would this be a perfect system? No, but it could hardly be worse than the current college setup.

Will it make the game safer? Somewhat.

Will it make it less violent? Not really. But people working under the idea that’s possible or even desirable are out of touch.

Players and fans understand violence and danger are part of the game — and part of the appeal, too.

Now that Mitchell and Iloka have said it, let’s stop pretending it’s not true and find workable solutions rather than continuing this cycle.

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