The starting strong safety for the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals is Adrian Wilson. He is a 6’3″, 225 pound athlete with tremendous talent and a penchant for delivering big blows in defense of the Cardinal end zone. This season’s opening game vs. the San Francisco 49ers was no different. Late in the first quarter, the 49ers led 3-0, and were driving for more. On the previous play, Niner QB Shaun Hill had connected for 17 yards and was intent on keeping the Cardinals guessing. The Niners, organized by offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, put two tight ends on the left side of the formation and sent Vernon Davis down the seam. Pictured below, Davis is fully extended and has the ball in both hands. Adrian Wilson is standing on the 20 yard line (pictured closest to Davis) and poised for a sudden impact. He appears to be circling Davis, rather than approaching him in a straight line.
At this juncture in the game, the Cardinals need a stop. The 49ers aggressive play calling puts a premium on the willingness of a defense to deliver big hits. Wilson specializes in those hits.
In this frame, you can see that Wilson has delivered the blow. He hits Davis with everything he has – forearm, helmet, and his full momentum. Davis is now nearly parallel to the playing field. The play has not been whistled dead. There is still something to be decided. Where is the ball?
On this play, Vernon Davis couldn’t hold on. The 49ers were not able to punch the ball into the endzone. The Cardinal defense held the 49ers to 3 points and were in a position to win the game at the end. These types of hits have been the cornerstone of the NFL since its beginnings. The NFL, though, has changed significantly since those gritty days in grimy cities like Chicago and Detroit. Today, games are played on manicured fields in billion-dollar stadiums in front of millions of fans. In addition to the financial evolution of the game, there have been advancements in medical research (or perhaps simply more disclosure) that conclusively demonstrate the human cost of playing a collision sport.
Adrian Wilson was whistled for a 15-yard penalty on this play. The NFL is trying to legislate behavior and players like Adrian Wilson are penalized the most. They are not many players flying around NFL secondaries capable of consistently doling out Wilson’s degree of force. Pittsburgh’s Ryan Clark comes immediately to mind (as do the poster boys of his biggest hits: Wes Welker and Willis McGahee). I don’t believe that players like Wilson are dirty. I believe they’re simply Old School. If the NFL is to retain the essence of itself, while moving forward to protect player safety and keep fans tuned in, they have to also carve out a space where good, solid hits like many of those meted out by Wilson do not adversely impact the game.