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Vikings, NFL teams have to coach ‘pulled punches’

The 8mm film that whirred through Abraham Zapruder’s Bell & Howell Zoomatic spring-wound home-movie camera at 18.3 frames per second exposed 486 individual images that day in November 1963. Simple math dictates, then, that the footage lasts all of 26.6 seconds, though of course we all know better than that.

The duration of that moment, from the presidential motorcade reaching Dealey Plaza to the Lincoln limousine convertible barreling through the underpass to Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, continues today, active and picked over almost exactly 45 years later.

Video is mysterious that way, in its capacity to expand or compress events, its permanence as a record of something that happened just once in the time it takes to blink and the tricks it can play when the duration is slowed down or sped up. What lasts an instant (a hummingbird feeding) gets drawn out for minutes. What takes days, weeks or months (a flower blooming, a skyscraper being erected) gets scrunched via time-lapse down to seconds.

It’s something the NFL and thus the Minnesota Vikings deal with every week, obviously in less historic or scientific ways but confounding all the same.

Fine line between game’s hero and goat
A charging defensive lineman, paid to disrupt the opposing offense, bears down on the quarterback. If the passer fails to release the ball, the lineman is a hero, a sack artist, the man on whose mayhem the outcome of a game can turn. If the passer gets the ball away in time, that hero can become a bum, the target of a penalty, the reason for the team’s failure and, a couple of days later, several thousand dollars poorer.

The NFL, on several occasions so far this season, has reviewed plays and imposed fines for actions that at least in some cases – in real time, live and in full view of 50,000 people or more – failed even to draw a yellow penalty flag. Somehow, some way, working the forward, reverse and slow-motion buttons on a video deck, what wasn’t an infraction became one.

It happened to the Vikings’ Jared Allen for what were deemed low hits on Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub two weeks ago at the Metrodome. His two below-the-knee hits cost him $50,000 in fines imposed days later by league headquarters in New York. Likewise, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck was fined $7,500 for a hit on Dallas quarterback Brooks Bollinger. (See the video below.) Arizona’s Deuce Lutui and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie incurred $5,000 fines for violations that also were flagged as 15-yard penalties.

Tuck, who wrapped up Bollinger at the moment he released the ball, reportedly was penalized for “unnecessarily” driving the quarterback to the ground. That interpretation and the after-the-whack levy drove former NFL lineman Mike Golic, now an ESPN radio host, apoplectic on the air.

“Guys, this has to stop,” Golic said, directing his comments toward NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league execs. “I undersand about protecting people from certain hits in certain situations, but this is a joke. That is a textbook tackle. You are taught to run through the man and tackle him like he’s not even there. That is what you teach to Little League kids.”

Last month, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu said the NFL was turning into “a pansy game” after a rash of fines charged to his Steelers teammates. “I think, regarding the evolution of football, it’s becoming more and more flag football, two-hand touch,” Polamalu said. “We’ve really lost the essence of what real American football is about. I think it’s probably all about money. They’re not really concerned about safety.”

Polamalu, in particular, had reacted to $15,000 in fines against Pittsburg receiver Hines Ward for alleged unnecessary roughness on two plays that did not draw flags at the time. “When you see guys like Dick Butkus, the Ronnie Lotts, the Jack Tatums, these guys really went after people,” Polamalu said, naming several legendary NFL “hitters.” (See video below.) “Now, they couldn’t survive in this type of game.”

NFL protecting some players but attacking others’ paychecks
The NFL maintains it wants to protect players, especially important and highly compensated quarterbacks, for the good of the game and the health of those players. But going after a player’s paycheck on Tuesday or Wednesday isn’t good for anyone, especially if staffers reviewing video see things the game officials did not. That’s where the elasticity of time on tape can play a role.

“It matters,” Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Thursday during a break in preparation for Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay. “I don’t know how you can ignore that fact. To be able to go back and replay some of those plays, it’s a dramatic difference when you slow the play down [or] you see it in real time. I hope that will be taken into account as we go forward. Real time matters in our game. It’s not played in slow-motion.”

A back who carries the ball out of bounds can seem to be there for an eternity when a defender plows him over – if the play is viewed in slow motion. Same thing for a quarterback getting hit … one-one thousand, two-one thousand … a beat later by a blitzer.

“Whether you’re a football player or a gentleman like yourself running full speed in one direction, and at the blink of an eye, to be able to stop or change direction, it’s a difficult thing to do,” Frazier said. “I don’t know how you do it. I played pro and college and high school football, and I never had the ability to be able to run directly at the target and get within inches of it, and be able to veer off course. It would be hard for Adrian Peterson to do it, and he’s a rare, rare individual. And in our game, the way we teach tackling is, attack what it is you’re trying to tackle. We don’t teach ‘deviate to the left or to the right.’ “

Allen, who appealed his fines, favors on-site policing rather than the verdicts, days late, from on high. “The refs are usually pretty good about [letting you hear] the whistle – that’s why there’s leniency in you getting a couple of steps or a step or something. But you don’t usually think about it. It’s one of those things, when you grow up learning how to play, you just have that feel of what’s OK and what’s not.”‘

Now, a lot of NFL players are learning doubt. And thinking about pulling their punches. And hanging onto their wallets. Vikings special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro said his unit talks about avoiding penalties from the first meeting each week until the final prep session on Saturday.

These days, though, the topic of money never comes up. “Nah, those guys know,” Ferraro said. “We don’t have to mention fines. They talk plenty about it within themselves in the locker room.”

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