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Memo to NFL: Don’t take physicality out of football

Bears line- backer Lance Briggs stands over Lions receiver CalvJohnsafter delivering hard hit fourth quarter Sunday. | Tom Cruze ~Sun-Times

Bears line- backer Lance Briggs stands over Lions receiver Calvin Johnson after delivering a hard hit in the fourth quarter Sunday. | Tom Cruze ~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 16, 2011 8:20AM



You can have the chippiness,
the dirty plays and the brawl from the Lions-Bears game Sunday, if that’s what entertains you. You can have the helmets
being pried off like bottle caps, too.

I’ll take Lance Briggs’ hit on Calvin Johnson, the one that should have reduced the Lions’ receiver to a pile of Jenga blocks but somehow didn’t.

That’s what Bears football is supposed to look like, no matter what a penalty flag had to say about it afterward. And that’s what Bears football is supposed to sound like, with an ‘‘oomph’’ from the hittee and an ‘‘aaah’’ from the 60,000 friends of the hitter.

If the NFL fines Briggs for his fourth-quarter demolition of Johnson, then what we’re watching isn’t football anymore. It’s a tumblebugs gymnastics class.

The hit he put on Johnson is
the kind Dick Butkus used to put on opponents who had the misfortune of wandering into his territory. It’s also the kind of hit the NFL marketed in videos until it had a forced epiphany about concussions and realized football is a dangerous sport.

But Briggs’ hit wasn’t dirty. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder collision, a perfect example of what happens when mass and energy get together. Violence is one of the two reasons football is so popular in the United States. The other is gambling. Get rid of the violence, and you might as well start playing the ponies.

‘‘That was a great football play,’’ cornerback Charles Tillman said Sunday. ‘‘I’m all for safety, but .  .  . there are going to be some hard hits. It’s a contact sport. They’re not letting us play football anymore. They’re clean hits. I think they handcuff the defense tremendously.’’

On Monday, the Bears still were talking about their 37-13 victory. The defense was ridiculously good, causing the Lions to lose the ball six times and to lose their composure more than that.

But what everyone wanted to talk about was Briggs’ ‘‘tackle’’ of Johnson. It was a ‘‘tackle’’ the way an earthquake is a ‘‘shiver.’’

‘‘That was a good football hit,’’ defensive end Israel Idonije said. ‘‘That’s the game. A shoulder made contact. The receiver was going down. He brought his head into the contact zone. But it’s just so violent, and the officials have to make that call so quickly. Because it was an incredible blow, he throws the flag.

‘‘But Lance’s intentions were right. For us, just playing within the system, making those hits in the right fashion, we’ll continue to be a physical defense that plays with not many penalties.’’

In other words, while the Lions contemplate whether to continue to cheap-shot their way through life, the Bears will continue to play hard, tough football.

When the league goes over the tape of the game, it surely will notice the difference between Briggs’ hit on Johnson (clean) and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s decision to grab Bears cornerback D.J. Moore by the helmet and throw him down (dirty).

The unnecessary-roughness call against Briggs isn’t going to change the Bears’ physical approach. There will not be a ceasefire.

‘‘[The coaches] expect us to be physical, to out-physical our opponents,’’ Idonije said. ‘‘That’s kind of where we live as a Bear defense.’’

The rest of it? The pushing and shoving after the whistle? The extracurriculars? That’s not the Bears, coach Lovie Smith insisted.

‘‘You have plenty of time in between the whistles to prove exactly how tough you are and to show your brand of physical football, and that’s what we try to do,’’ he said.

Briggs-Johnson wasn’t a mismatch, at least sizewise. Johnson is 6-5, 236 pounds. Briggs is 6-1, 244. If Johnson had been smaller, his current mode of transportation would be a mobility scooter.

Idonije and Smith said they understand why an official might be quick to throw a flag on such a violent hit. I don’t. The play was right in front of the officials.

But with so much attention on head injuries, everyone is afraid to look uncaring. What says ‘‘concussion awareness’’ more than a 15-yard penalty?

The Bears’ defense is on a roll. Julius Peppers is playing like a madman, and the Bears’ decision to move him periodically from end to tackle is borderline unfair to opponents. Thirty-three-year-old Brian Urlacher is acting somebody else’s age. And Briggs seems to forget his contract issues while he’s on the field.

Here’s hoping a skittish league doesn’t legislate their aggressiveness out of existence.



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