To win in the playoffs you need toughness, so let's be clear on what is or isn't tough.
It seems that over the second half of the season, the line between what constitutes a tough player and a dirty one has become blurred. All too often today when a player does something outside of the rules like what Khalif Mitchell did to Simeon Rottier, or what Shea Emry did to Brendan Labatte, I read or hear people say that it is a tough game and sometimes players push it to the edge, and often beyond, and that is just part of tough players playing a tough game.
There also seems to be an attempt to compare the previously mentioned transgressions with hits like the one Dee Webb put on Marco Ianuzzi, or the one that Brandon Isaac put on Darian Durant. Both scenarios are against the rules, but at the same time are very different, and shouldn't be confused. Isaac and Webb were playing hard, and broke the rules by literally inches. If they lowered their heads a few inches there may have been no penalties, fines, or suspensions. Or if they kept their heads up, and led with their face masks by a few inches, there also may not have been a problem.
Yes, Isaac is a repeat offender and that weighed into the league's decision, and he should be monitored because of his track record. However, both of those hits are still football plays.
It may be time for the league, and those who cover football, to rethink the language being used when it comes to hits to the head. "Helmet to helmet" seems to be the term thrown out there whenever there is a questionable hit. There seems to be an assumption that as long as both helmets have collided, that is enough to penalize or fine a player, but it just may be way too general of a term to use.
Since the hit by Webb I have been watching closely and reviewing all hits that have "helmet to helmet" contact, and I can unofficially report that there is contact that would fall under that category on every play in football. Case in point the hit that Deon Beasley put on Bakari Grant, or the one that Khyries Hebert put on Mathew Bertrand that knocked the fullback unconscious. Both of those hits were deemed legal by the league, the players involved, the media, and public opinion, but there was definitely helmet-to-helmet contact on both.
The league is working towards finding some consistency in ruling on these hits and is doing a good job, considering the shift to better protect players is a relatively new initiative. Based on what we now know about head trauma, and with more information coming out all the time, there will be a learning curve; in fact players themselves are still trying to understand where the line in the sand is, and how to adjust their games accordingly.
Football is a tough game, played by gladiators, and the line can be crossed by the best of the best. However, when players with respect for the game, their opponents, and their own teammates cross that line they take their punishment. Players with that respect for the game can still make a bad decision in the heat of the battle, but when they do they will almost immediately apologize to their teammates, pay the fine, or sit out the suspension, and then get back to work.
This is also an area where the league's Players' Association can step up and be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Just because it is within a player's right to appeal any fine or suspension doesn't mean they should, especially in the more obvious cases.
Also, during the offseason the organizations should think about reviewing their policies when it comes to making the game safer. It is time to see organizations levy their own discipline when it comes to obvious bad decisions that lead to questionable hits, and they should do it before the league has ruled on the hit in question. Past history has shown that the Players' Association protects the penalized player more than the player who may miss games due to the injury caused by a cheap shot, and that is just not right. And there are teams that will fine their own players but almost always do it after the league has ruled, which sends the message that if the league lets it go the club will as well, and again that needs to change.
For the football plays that are in question, let's see teams step up and take a leadership role, and players respect the game itself by making sure, if they are ever caught in the heat of the battle and make a bad decision, they apologize, take their lumps, and move on. The game deserves that respect.
Now most of this discussion will happen in the offseason, but with the playoffs about to begin the physical intensity will be turned up a few notches, and so will the scrutiny on questionable hits. However, it is safe to say that the football plays, and the players involved in them, fall under the category of tough.
Now the transgressions that aren't football plays aren't tough, not close. Emry and Mitchell's actions are not part of the game in any way, shape, or form, and are also not tough; in fact they could be categorized as selfish. Tough is when a defensive lineman can't feel his legs anymore because he is so tired, and still fires off the ball at full speed. Tough is getting knocked down, and then getting up before the play is over and getting knocked down again. Mentally tough is taking a cheap shot and walking away without retaliating for the better good of your team's ultimate goal, which is to win the game. Tough is being in an all-out three-hour physical battle with an opponent, and shake his hand after the final whistle, win or lose, and respect that he gave you everything he had, and you did the same. What is not tough is an after-the-whistle punch to the groin. That is just juvenile, and there is no place for it.
This is an area that, again, should likely be discussed at rules committee meetings in the offseason to make an attempt to send a stronger message for those who decide that their childish outbursts are more important than the game. Tougher penalties for juvenile behavior will end the confusion as to whether a hit or incident is a football play, or not, and what should be considered tough, or not.
As I mentioned, crossing the line can happen to any player, and I include myself on the list of players that have made bad decisions in a football game. This was not an attempt to pick on any of the players mentioned in this article. They are and will continue to be good football players. However, let's be clear on what is a football play, and what isn't, and what is an act of toughness, and what isn't.
I bring all of this up because starting this weekend we will all witness the most intense and physical form of CFL football, when six teams begin their quest to become Champions. The team that is the most mentally and physically tough will win the 100th Grey Cup. The team that avoids the retaliation temptation, and the roster that puts all selfish agendas aside and doesn't take bad penalties, while still playing like their lives depended on it, will be crowned Champions.
The toughest will survive.