Kam Chancellor is a menacing presence in the Seattle Seahawks secondary. At 6-foot-3, 232 pounds, he’s the prototypical strong safety for the 21st century. He’s big enough to knock down a tight end lurking in the middle and quick enough to catch up with a receiver who’s racing down the sideline for six points.
Vernon Davis is Chancellor’s counterpart at tight end. Teams are looking for bigger safeties like Chancellor because they need to counteract the Davis-like players who create mismatches with their linebacker size and receiverlike athleticism.
The prototypical safety met the prototypical tight end in the first quarter of Sunday’s game between the 49ers and Seahawks. As Davis sped up the sideline to receive a rainbow pass from Colin Kaepernick, Chancellor lowered his shoulder and planted it like a spear into Davis’ chest. The two forces of nature collided at the Seahawks 2-yard line and the end result isn’t surprising: a concussion.
Davis was pulled from the game immediately and Chancellor was flagged with an unnecessary roughness penalty. It looks like Davis might suit up this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, but the play reveals just how difficult it is to prevent head trauma in a game where the pieces keep getting bigger.
By all means, Chancellor’s hit on Davis was clean and legal. He popped him in the chest with his shoulders, it wasn’t a helmet-to-helmet blow. But in real time, the hit was so violent, so vicious that you can’t blame the referee for assuming a crime was committed.
This is the harsh reality the NFL would prefer not to discuss when concussion issues arise: the game in its pure and natural form is a head-safety nightmare.
Unfortunately, this isn’t my grandfather’s, or even my father’s, football league anymore. Football has always been a tough and rugged sport played by tough and rugged men, but when you watch Steve Sabol’s NFL Films from the 1960s and ’70s, the game is different. The action seems to move in slow motion even when the film is running in real time. Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert, as feared as they were, tackled by wrapping up and hauling down opponents with their arms.
They weren’t sprinting full speed and turning their bodies into missiles to knock them down like bowling pins.
Nowadays, though, you need safeties (not just linebackers) that hit like Chancellor so you can take down tight ends as big as Davis. With all this size and speed colliding on a 120-yard football field, brain injuries are bound to occur.
But the NFL would prefer that this not be on our minds when we’re watching Sunday football next to the fireplace with our families. It wants us to believe that if it weeds out the bounty scandals and penalize dirty hits, the risks of playing the sport will somehow dissipate.
In reality, the sport is facing an existential crisis because of plays like the Chancellor-Davis hit. Despite rule changes, the game is growing more dangerous every year because the pieces continue to evolve. You can’t fine players for just getting bigger, bigger and bigger.