Effort to protect NFL players has all but backfired

Footage of the game’s nastiest hits may be buried deep in the archives of NFL Films, but every week there are vivid reminders that the league still hasn’t reconciled how to effectively deal with excessive violence. Try as they may to eliminate blind-side shots against “defenseless players,” players continue to be punished for doing exactly what they are trained and instructed to do.

Unfortunately, while coaches, teammates and fans cheer almost every crushing blow against the opposition, referees are left with the virtually impossible task of deciding when a tackle is too hard or dangerous. Aside from long overdue rules against helmet-to-helmet hits, blows to the head and launching to make a tackle, quick-whistled officials now appear all too eager to penalize attacking players based on the physical reaction of their target.

James Harrison is the latest victim of the NFL’s great gray area of peace-keeping. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl linebacker faces a one-game suspension for his helmet-to-facemask hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy last week. The scrambling quarterback was out of the pocket when Harrison drew a roughing penalty for slamming him in the breastplate with an arms-first tackle. The slightly built McCoy went down like he was shot.

Former Kansas City Chiefs coach and ex-NFL defensive back Herman Edwards wisely noted on ESPN that had Harrison hit Cam Newton, the bigger and stronger Carolina Panthers quarterback, he probably would have bounced right back up. So how is it fair to require defenders to temper the intensity of their hits based on the toughness of the ball carrier? Besides, what’s to stop a cagy quarterback from overly dramatizing the effects of a hard sack?

Ronnie Lott used to talk about visualizing “hitting through an opponent.” You think if Lott was playing today the NFL would penalize him for premeditated mayhem? We all know the league’s new safety measures are designed primarily to keep superstars on the field and in the spotlight. If the NFL truly cared about player well-being, they would eliminate Thursday night games.

Then again, the only thing rivaling the league’s insatiable pursuit of profits is fans’ desire for more football. With the playoffs right around the corner, the hits will keep on coming.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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