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Meriweather fined for hit

Patriot to be docked $50,000; two others penalized by NFL

Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson was leveled by a hit from Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson was fined $50,000 . . . Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson was leveled by a hit from Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson was fined $50,000 . . . (Al Bello/Getty Images)
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 20, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather became a $50,000 example for the NFL yesterday.

Meriweather, along with Pittsburgh’s James Harrison ($75,000) and Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson ($50,000), were slapped with stiff fines that totaled $175,000 for “flagrant violations of player safety rules’’ on hits they made in Sunday’s games. Typically, the league releases fine information on Fridays, but after numerous hits to the head in Week 6, the league didn’t waste time expressing its lack of tolerance.

Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, started spreading the league’s message via the radio yesterday, and he reinforced it last night on the NFL Network.

“We hope that we are sending a message emphatically that going forward, hits to the head that are illegal under our existing and current rules will be dealt with at a higher level,’’ Anderson said on the NFL Network. “Players and coaches need to know that accountability is elevated and we’re not going back.’’

The league cited two plays in the Patriots’ 23-20 overtime win against the Ravens on which Meriweather struck an opponent in the head or neck area. One hit was on receiver Derrick Mason in the third quarter that did not draw a flag. But the other resulted in a 15-yard penalty.

In the second quarter, Ravens tight end Todd Heap jumped for a pass in the middle of the field on second and 7 from the Baltimore 23. Meriweather launched himself toward Heap, making impact at Heap’s helmet, shaking up the tight end and drawing a flag. Heap left the game but did return.

Meriweather addressed the hit while doing an interview on WEEI on Monday, saying, “I wasn’t trying to make the head-to-head contact or injure anybody or play dirty in any kind of way. It just happened.’’

But the league isn’t interested in explanations. The penalty is costly for Meriweather, who has a base salary of $550,000 this season, which breaks down to about $34,375 a game.

For players who attack a defenseless receiver with a forearm, shoulder, or helmet, the penalty from here on out could include a suspension, Anderson said. The league always had the power to suspend, and has promised to be more aggressive in the future.

In 2008, New York Jets safety Eric Smith was fined $50,000 and suspended one game for his hit on Anquan Boldin that caused the receiver to be carted off the field. While suspensions could have been imposed on the players who were fined yesterday, Anderson said the league wanted coaches and players to have a chance to prepare for the stiffer penalties.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick avoided talking specifically about Meriweather’s hit yesterday but said it is up to players and coaches to understand the rules.

Addressing the issue before Meriweather’s fine was announced, Belichick said, “Whatever the rules are, that’s what they are. However the officials call the game, that’s how the players and the coaches have to perform, is within those guidelines, whatever they are.

“We’ve seen lots of different ones and they come and go and they change. The same rules get interpreted differently and all that. So, you just have to understand how the game is being officiated and what the calls mean.’’

Deciphering what is and isn’t illegal contact or pass interference or holding could lead to confusion, he added.

“There are a lot of gray areas in all those calls, so we have to learn what those are and hope that the officials call them consistently from week to week, which, that’s an issue too,’’ Belichick said.

Before the fines were issued, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was asked for his thoughts about helmet-to-helmet hits. He did not comment specifically about Meriweather, but said he supports player safety.

“I’m passionate about the game of football, and the last thing we want to do is see anyone get injured playing here,’’ Kraft said. “Helmet-to-helmet contact is probably something we can do without and I’m glad the league [is taking] a strong stance. It’s a physical game but we don’t want to see anyone get hurt permanently.’’

The league is getting the attention of its players. Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich was shocked to hear the amount of Meriweather’s fine.

“Wow. That’s a lot of money,’’ Ninkovich said. “It’s a shame that that’s a $50,000 fine but I guess the NFL is trying to get their point across to everybody that they’re not going to tolerate that. It’s good that he’s not suspended because I feel like that wouldn’t really be fair to him.’’

Patriots rookie cornerback Devin McCourty said he knows the rules and doesn’t think errant tackles are done maliciously.

“It’s tough,’’ McCourty said. “There’s just no black or white. It’s a gray area. You want to be physical but at the same point you have to know you can’t do some things. As players, we’re all playing football together even though we’re on separate teams. We’re not trying to intentionally hurt anyone.’’

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