Cam Newton was the one to vocalize it, though the message could easily have come from one of several well-known players who were hurt from hits of questionable legality on Sunday. The Carolina Panthers snapped a four-game losing streak with a performance that was reminiscent of their play that led to a Super Bowl appearance last season, and yet their quarterback wanted to address how he felt unsafe on the field.
"It's really taking the fun out of the game for me," he said at the postgame presser. "At times I don't even feel safe. And enough is enough."
"I don't think there's a person that can go through what I go through and still keep their heads. Hits to the head, that's one thing. But when you're not protected in the pocket, that's another thing.
"The story of my life ever since I came in is, 'Oh, oh, well, we missed that one. I'm sorry. I'll try to get it.' That's bullcrap. As a player in this league if we do something stupid we get fined. If you do something derogatory to somebody else, we get fined. I just can't keep accepting, 'Oh, we missed that one.' Or 'I apologize for doing that.' Or 'I didn't see it.' That's horsecrap."
Newton's point dealt with how officials are often letting illegal hits made on him in the pocket go unpenalized in a way that they don't with most other starting quarterbacks, and he's right. Newton is absolutely held to a different standard than just about every other quarterback, and it makes little sense that the league wouldn't do more to protect one of its most popular players.
And yet Cam wasn't only high-profile player the NFL failed on Sunday. Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith, who had already left the game looking woozy and returned, sustained a concussion on a hit to the head during a slide, another moment when a passer is supposed to be protected. Clayton Geathers was not penalized for shoving Smith's head into the turf when the quarterback is supposed to be protected from contact.
Washington receiver DeSean Jackson was not diagnosed with a concussion Sunday after he left the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, though the team said he did sustain a head contusion. Jackson took a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety George Iloka on a reception. This drew no flag because the refs decided that by the time of impact Jackson had "become a runner" and therefore could defend himself, though that's the sort of extremely imprecise and subjective determination that makes the whole "what is a catch?" process so maddening to viewers.
Stricter enforcement against these kind of hits would deter some of them from happening in the future. Certainly not all—football is a violent sport; dangerous collisions are inevitable—but at least some. For a league that has become synonymous with a lack of concern for its players, this seems like a necessary next step. And yet the NFL gives itself enough outs in the form of rulebook legalese to let many dangerous hits fly.
If this year has provided any lesson to the NFL, it's that it the league can no longer count on continual growth no matter what. There is a point where the product can be poor enough that fans no longer accept the many other reasons to be turned off by the NFL. Pro football is never going to be completely safe without fundamental changes to the nature of the sport. The NFL has no desire to make the game completely safe. So when it comes down to choosing between ensuring safety and making sure games proceed in a way that is watchable, the league is going to go with the latter.
That the NFL is willing to risk the health and availability of its most marketable players is a curious approach, though it also speaks to what appeals to fans. In constant discussion about declining ratings this season, a complaint I hear more than others is a perceived dip in the quality of games. This can be a tough thing to pin down, as there's hardly a universal definition of what constitutes great football, but I think we can agree it's not more penalties. Many fans and pundits also decry the lack of practice time that they claim is causing a drop in the quality of play, though that's the result of policy changes negotiated several years ago by the players themselves. As fans, we're cool with safety and player health so long as it doesn't get in the way of what we want to watch.
At least in terms of entertainment, the NFL had one of its better Sundays of the season, as prominent access reporters who cover the league were quick to point out.
This, of course, is the sort of thinking that enables everything bad the NFL does. If the football is good, if the ratings are up, then it's all gravy? The idea of safety in football is always going to be a challenge, but if we're pretending to care for the health of players at all, we have to be willing to weigh that concern against what's best to have on TV.
That Said, Give a Ref a Hug
This week's absurd celebration penalty goes to Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for hugging an official after scoring a touchdown against the Saints. This is one of those cases when everyone shares in the stupidity. The NFL for being more strict on gently contacting officials than it is with launching into players. Thomas, of course, had to know he was going to draw a flag for violating a well-established rule: don't be touching the refs. Still, if nothing else, his hug inadvertently made a salient point about how the NFL only possesses moral clarity on the most puffed-up, idiotic things. Love it when hugs do that.
OK, You Took a Low Hit, But What Are Thoooooseee?
Classic internet. Cam Newton is trying to tell us about how Calais Campbell nearly shred his ACL to ribbons, and yet all we can talk about is how he's dressed like the Joker, or how his shoes look like they're made of pepper jack cheese or cookies-and-cream bars, or breadstricks, or whatever. Real mature, folks. (And yes, I'm getting to the dildo in Buffalo in a minute. Just be patient.)
If anything, this is why the NFL should do its best to protect Newton, since his gameday outfits command half the tweets about the league most Sundays. Hell, they should invite him to crash every playoff game since it's still very much a longshot for Carolina to make it back.
Some Dildo Stole Gronk's 69 Spotlight
In the second quarter of the New England Patriots' 41-25 drubbing of the Buffalo Bills, Rob Gronkowski found the end zone on a 53-yard catch and run to mark the 69th touchdown of his career, a very nice accomplishment he found as amusing as the rest of us who are perpetually stuck in 9th grade forever.
Even the opposition gave a little wink.
How sweet. Nobody much talks about it, but Gronk has grown up a little these past few years. So if you were expecting him to hump the ball or simulate an elaborate sex act, and had possibly even placed a lucrative prop bet on it that may or may not endanger your ability to pay rent next month, you were in for a disappointment. Luckily, Bills fans came prepared, as they do, for maximum debauchery.
It had to happen in Buffalo, epicenter of football id, where diving through tables in the parking lot is a weekly ritual. Other NFL markets have drinking and rowdiness, but how many of those other fans have gotten a dildo on the field? These are bragging points that will easily exceed trivial things like Super Bowl titles. After all, those are won by the players, coaches, and personnel people. The fans have no real say in that. The dildo throw deserves its own banner in Ralph Wilson Stadium or whatever corporate name it goes by now.
Reached for comment, Gronk was very humble and demurring in his acceptance of this honor.
Break Out the Werther's Original, Tom Coughlin Is Back
ESPN's Adam Schefter put out one of his classic half-reports early on Sunday, saying that if the Jacksonville Jaguars do, in fact, fire notably bad head coach Gus Bradley midseason, then it's possible that Tom Coughlin could return to the sidelines in Jacksonville. Of course, it would be an extremely Jacksonville thing to welcome back the best coach in franchise history only after he has been discarded by the franchise he won two championships with. There's also the possibility that Coughlin sleeps entirely through Weeks 16 and 17. It would be for the best for everyone that way. Plus, the lack of cold in Florida will spare him the classic late-season Coughlin ruddy face.
The NFL Celebrated the First Decent London Game by Announcing Another Bad London Game
Washington and Cincinnati put together a pretty exciting 75 minutes of football, even if it ended in a tie that a lot of the country couldn't watch the end of because several TV markets cut away to regional assignments per NFL contracts. Still, for once it didn't make you hate yourself for waking up before 9 AM on a Sunday and therefore question your unhealthy relationship with football.
Josh Norman had a hard time with A.J. Green, as cornerbacks are wont to have with the Bengals receiver, and ended up being penalized five times on the day. While others were upset with the officiating after the hit on Jackson, Norman was more concerned with letting field judge Brad Freeman know that he sucked for not letting him play more physical with Green.
You can't have a tie game in the NFL in 2016 unless a kicker misses an embarrassing chip shot, and that privilege this week belonged to Washington's Dustin Hopkins, who missed a 34-yarder with about two minutes left in overtime to preserve the tie, the first time the NFL has had consecutive weeks with a tie since 1997.
Such was Hopkins' shame that he was blocked from doing an interview for German TV. We can't let them know our kickers are weak.
The Raiders Won in Incredibly Raiders Fashion
Cheers to Oakland for improving to 6-2 and setting themselves up for what could be their first playoff run since 2002. It was only possible thanks to an effort that included a record 23 accepted penalties for 200 yards. More important, the Raiders pulled it out in the final minutes of overtime when yet another tie loomed, which would have made it impossible to talk about anything else in the NFL for the next week. Jack Del Rio maintained his risky coach bona fides by attempting a fourth-and-four from near midfield late in overtime, though at that point Sebastian Janikowski had already missed two long field goals to win, so that might have influenced things as well.
And it's not just fun penalty records the Raiders are hitting. With Oakland's first touchdown of the day, offensive lineman Donald Penn scored his fourth TD of his career, tying him with former Viking Kevin Williams for the most ever by a player who weighs 300 pounds or more. Hail the new Big Guy Touchdown Co-King.
Fan of the Week
You know what? I don't care if Cleveland sports is on the verge of winning its second championship of 2016. I can still feel pity for Browns fans. Surely there are deranged football diehards there who still live (and mostly die) by the Browns each week, and for whom the Indians and Cavs titles are relatively meaningless. The Jets presented what seemed like the Browns' best chance to avoid going 0-16, and Cleveland got a lead only to squander it very Browns-ily. Don't blame Cleveland fans for being so spiritually worn down by this team that they can't put an end zone banner in the right order. Put in years of work at the Factory of Sadness, and then see how you do (I don't actually recommend that you do this).
Five Winners Who Covered Their Bloodline in Glory
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots. Deplorable Tom had four tuddys Sunday and still no interceptions since returning from suspension four weeks ago. I guess the only benefit of the Patriots' seemingly inevitable championship is how cheesed off Roger Goodell will be by it.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys' looming quarterback controversy ensures that Dak Prescott receives all the attention, good or bad. Elliott forced seven missed tackles and finished just under 100 yards rushing while adding 52 in the passing game on Sunday. Worth noting that Elliott is still being investigated by the league for domestic violence after authorities in Columbus declined to file charges against him. Jerry Jones said he spoke with NFL personal conduct investigations chief Lisa Friel about the case and that according to "all the real information that anybody has," Jones says Elliott is in the clear. Of course, given how accepting the Cowboys were of Greg Hardy, any Jones assurance should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.
3. Bradley Roby, Denver Broncos. With Aqib Talib sidelined, it was Roby's turn to tangle with Philip Rivers' floaters. Roby had a pick-six and allowed only two catches for 34 yards on nine passes targeted his way. Encouraging stuff from the 2014 first-round pick.
4. Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers. The Panthers' front seven that had been so devastating in 2015 finally came alive against the Cardinals. Lotulelei had three sacks and a forced fumble that ended up being a scoop and score by Thomas Davis for the first points of the game.
5. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders. It helped that the Bucs steadfastly refused to win themselves, but Carr still gets credit for hanging in there. Amari Cooper generally had a great game, though he also had one terrible drop at the end of regulation that could have won the Raiders the game. Carr passed for 513 yards and four scores on 40-of-59 passing.
Five Losers Bathing in the Hard Water of Infinite Shame
1. This Guy. You have to be a real gem to be the full-kit wanker in London for the Indians during a NFL game featuring Dan Snyder's team, and it's not against a team from Cleveland. There's a remote possibility this man is somehow an Indians/Bengals fan, though I think the safe money is on needless asshole.
2. Eagles receivers. Carson Wentz only had 11 incompletions on 43 attempts on the night against Dallas, and six were the result of drops. For the record, Nelson Agholor doesn't want to hear about any of that shit, though I'm sure Philly fans would love to detail their elaborate plans about how he can be shipped to Chicago with picks for Alshon Jeffery.
3. Matt Stafford. Just as soon as writers begin recognizing his impressive turnaround over the past year under Cooterball, he goes and lays an egg against the Texans. Detroit is still very much alive at 4-4, but they're going to very much embody that record by being difficult to predict from week to week.
4. Dustin Hopkins. Thirty-four yards, ya dink! I know both kickers in the Seahawks–Cardinals tie last week missed field goals from even shorter distances, but they're not here, are they?
5. Stephon Gilmore. When Tom Brady has the kind of stat line he has, there are going to be some defenders with rough days, and Gilmore had one to the tune of four catches allowed on five targets for 105 yards and a score.
As for Tonight...
Hell yeah. Jay Cutler is back, baby. And just in time to get mauled by the Minnesota Vikings defense in prime time on Halloween, no less. Everyone knows that Jay Cutler is actually a cat, so costumes come easy for him. Hopefully he'll have the default black ears going for his walkup to the locker room.
That the Chicago Bears are reportedly shopping Alshon Jeffery should make the last half of what is shaping up to be Cutty's final season in Chicago all the more demoralizing. Tonight should be no different, since the Vikings are likely to be fired up coming off a punishing first loss of the season the previous week in Philadelphia. At the very least, this will give Chicago fans a chance to work through all their negative thoughts before regrouping for Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.