By Dan Pompei
Cultural change almost always happens in subtle ways, in slight degrees that aren't even detected until one advancement is stacked upon the other. But then there can be moments, stunning moments that provide focus and clarity.
If we didn't know it before Oct. 17, we do now. A change is coming in the NFL. On that night, Larry Fitzgerald took Richard Sherman out of a play without trying to knock him into Nevada. And on another play, he got the job done on Walter Thurmond while passing up the opportunity to separate him at the neck.
It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. In fact, it mostly went unnoticed. But it became a big deal when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it in perspective one week later. He made sure that the NFL office was aware of the two plays.
"Those are just two plays that I thought... jumped off the game film," Carroll said in a press conference. "I said something to Larry after the game about those two decisions that he made because I thought they were perfectly illustrating the new mentality and the right mentality. With an iconic guy like that I just thought it was really powerful."
Fitzgerald wasn't trying to change the world. His intention was not to do for NFL safety what Rosa Parks did for civil rights. When asked about the Sherman block after the game, the Cardinals receiver told reporters, "I tried to not hit him too hard. They fine you on those crack backs, and penalize you too. I didn't want to put my team in a position to lose 15 yards in the red zone like that and the opportunity to score. I just tried to make a smart play on that and make sure he didn't get the tackle."
In the process of just trying to make a smart play, Fitzgerald made a statement: Falling in line is OK. Or more than OK. Prudent. Decent. Noble.
"The awareness of the players and the way they play is really changing, it's really shifting," Carroll said. "It's clear our game is not the same as it was, and it's still OK, it's fine. We're going in the right direction, we're doing the right things, we're making the right choices."
Up until Carroll's assessment, almost every comment from a coach or player about the NFL's new way of doing things has been derisive or incredulous. Many have treated the right to give concussions with an almost pathological stubbornness. But now, others are sure to follow Carroll's lead.
What's happening here should resonate in every locker room in the NFL. Carroll needs to become louder than 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who thinks he was framed, and Bengals linebacker James Harrison, who has been vociferous in his objections to the new way of playing the game. We need more voices like Carroll's to stand up and speak out.
It's time for everyone to stop defending Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather playing like he's a bighorn sheep. And it's time to stop tolerating it. Reducing Meriweather's suspension from two games to one was a victory for him and a loss for football humanity.
We can't expect every NFL coach and player to share Carroll's view from the mountaintop. These men have been playing by one set of rules since they were using junior-size footballs. And now the rules have changed. What's more, the line between a hit that should be celebrated and a hit that should be condemned remains blurred for most, if not all of us. Maybe it always will be.
So Fitzgerald and other like-minded pros may have a better chance of changing the game at a grass roots level than they do of changing the very league they play in. Whenever a young player watches Fitzgerald and understands the object of the hit is not to disable, the game becomes better. Players like Fitzgerald who get it are examples for every kid in the country who straps on a helmet.
It isn't always easy to see, but the NFL already has come a long way. It isn't the same league from a safety perspective that it was 25 years ago. There have been advances in helmet technology, concussion treatment and new playing rules. And now player mentality is on the cusp of evolution.
Look, this game isn't shuffleboard. Concussions always will be there in football, just like they will be in girls' soccer and hockey or bike riding or anything that involves collisions. But the incidents and impact can be reduced, and the long-term effects can be improved.
And even if they can't be improved to a point of satisfaction, there has to be effort. These are first steps on a long journey. But they are significant steps.
"We can do it," Carroll declared.
There is hope for the NFL, and hope for football.
I can see it in Larry Fitzgerald's play. I can hear it in Pete Carroll's words. And I can feel it when I watch my 13-year-old middle linebacker son absolutely light up a running back with a loud, clean, pure hit. Foot in the middle of the target, eyes on the ball carrier, shoulder in the chest, head to the side.
Boom. Welcome to the future.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.