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Grant Cohn: In the NFL, hits to knees take back seat

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is helped onto a cart after being injured in the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Dec. 8. (ELSIE AMENDOLA / Associated PRess)

SANTA CLARA — Is it possible the NFL's efforts to eliminate head-to-head hits have made the game more dangerous?

If a defender hits someone in the head or even as low at the shoulder line, that's a 15-yard penalty, probably a fine and maybe a suspension, too. But if a defender hits someone in the knee, like Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward hit New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski last Sunday, launched his helmet into the side of Gronkowski's knee and tore Gronkowski's ACL and MCL — no penalty, no fine, no nothing.

The NFL is on pace to have 135 season-ending knee injuries this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Last season, there were 121 season-ending knee injuries. Two seasons ago, there were 93. The NFL seems to be trading an increase in ACL, MCL, PCL and LCL injuries for concussion awareness and hopefully reduced head trauma.

Does that trade make players safer?

Here's what Jim Harbaugh says: “I think it's a safer game than it was back when I played. I think it's safer than it was two, three, four years ago.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano doesn't want to say.

“I think that's a pretty complicated subject,” he said via a conference call. “I'm not going to get into the details of what's going on.”

The NFL puts pressure on coaches not to complain publicly about rules, but players tend to speak candidly. Take former 49er and current Buccaneers free safety Dashon Goldson. Does he think the NFL is making players safer?

“No way,” he said on a conference call. “With all these fines, they've got players scared to get penalized. What it's causing these guys to do is go low and blow out knees. I'd rather get hit up high and be dizzy for a play than get hit low and be out for a whole season.”

That may seem strange, but most players feel that way. Carlos Rogers feels that way. So does Donte Whitner.

“I guarantee,” Whitner said, “if you ask 99.9 percent of the players around the league if they'd rather be hit high, have a concussion and be out for a week or two, or be hit low and have a career-ending injury or something that puts you out for the season, 99.9 percent would take the concussion over that.

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