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Starkey: NFL long ways from 'flag football'

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The 49ers' LaMichael James is hit by the Seahawk' Ricardo Lockette during a kick return in the first half Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Seattle.

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Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, 10:21 p.m.

Flag football. Pansy league. Basketball in shoulder pads.

What else did we hear when the NFL launched its clumsy war on head shots four years ago?

You remember the backlash. Much of it emanated from the Steelers locker room, where James Harrison threatened to retire, Ryan Clark spoke of “basketball in shoulder pads” and Troy Polamalu opined that “football loses so much of its essence when it becomes like a pansy league.”

Fans gobbled up the quotes. Star players everywhere echoed them. Some went so far as to predict pro football's imminent demise — at least as a real man's sport. Never again would we see head-bashing defenses like those of the Steelers and Ravens. Never again would we see a conference championship game as stingy and violent as the one those teams staged in 2009.

“You know what we should do? We should just put flags on everybody,” then-Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher told The Chicago Tribune. “Let's make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It's unbelievable.”

OK. Now fast forward to this past Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

Did that look like flag football to you? 'Cause it looked like vintage Steelers-Ravens — or maybe Steelers-Raiders circa 1976 — to me.

It looked like somebody stayed down every third play.

It looked like the middle of the field was a dangerous place to roam.

It looked like LaMichael James nearly got his head torn off.

One of the doomsday prophets — 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who told reporters before last year's Super Bowl that the NFL soon would devolve into “flag football” — dropped a pass when Seattle safety Kam Chancellor nearly broke him in half.

Did he get your flag, too, Vernon?

Skulls bounced off the turf like Skittles. Quarterbacks got crushed. Two players suffered gruesome injuries. The game was every bit as vicious as any I could remember, be it from 1974, '84, '94, 2004 or 2014.

The one in Denver wasn't exactly basketball in shoulder pads, either, was it Aqib Talib?

The more this sport changes, constantly acquiescing to offense, the more it stays the same. The conference championship games produced a total of 82 points. Twenty years ago, that total was 96. Thirty years ago, it was 96.

What happened to defense? A lot, and nothing. You can still hammer quarterbacks and receivers. You still have to deal with brute-force running games (hello Marshawn Lynch).

As it turns out, the wussification-of-the-game talk was total nonsense.

Football players forever have lamented the alleged softening of their sport, forgetting that their kind keeps getting bigger, stronger and faster. If collisions 40 years ago happened at 55 mph, they're happening at 100 mph now. And it's not sports cars anymore. It's Mack trucks.

Asked by Howard Cosell in 1979 what he thought of protecting quarterbacks, Steelers legend Jack Lambert said, “Well, it might be a good idea to put dresses on all of 'em.”

Great line, but Lambert — who played at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds — wouldn't be kicking Brian Sipe around in the modern-day NFL. He'd be dealing with quarterbacks bigger than him, like San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who stands 6-4, 230 and runs like a tailback.

So go ahead and question the NFL's motives in attempting to curb headshots (hint: the trail to your answer is paved with dollar bills). Question why it has outlawed certain kinds of blocks and quarterback hits. Certainly, question its execution on all fronts.

But the game hardly has lost its essence. Not even close.

It's as brutal as ever.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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