The NFL has always known how violence is inherent and celebrated in its sport - from the once-famous "Jacked Up" segments on ESPN, to the still-famous "Hit Stick" on the "Madden NFL '09" video game and the dozens of "greatest hits" videos.
More and more, however, the hard hits are being viewed by the league in a much different light. The weekly list of those being fined $7,500 or $15,000 or $50,000 for a hard hit - whether it drew a flag or not the previous Sunday - is getting more attention than ever.
It's confusing lots of players, too.
"I don't know what a bad hit is," said Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals, fined $25,000 earlier this season for a hit that knocked Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards out of a game - the very thing some defenders see as part of their job.
"You know, it's football, and to me, every hit could be scrutinized, regardless of hether it's a legal hit or an illegal hit," Wilson said.
A week ago, Justin Tuck of the Giants got penalized for a hard sack on Brooks Bollinger because he put the full force of his body into slamming the Dallas quarterback to the ground. Even Ron Jaworski, a former quarterback and longtime advocate of QB protection, said he thought that was a little ridiculous. The NFL fined Tuck $7,500, but later rescinded the fine when the commissioner looked at the tape.
It was yet another decision that raised as many questions as it answered.
The NFL, seriously contemplating moving to an 18-game season in which player health would be jeopardized even further, realizes what a big investment it has in these players.
Commissioner Roger Goodell is on a crusade to clean up the image of its players and the game. A league that sometimes seems almost too perfectly sanitized and on-message could be moving toward alienating its players and policing out of the game one of the very things that made it popular in the first place: the bone-crushing hit.
Under current rules, Chuck Bednarik might have owed huge money after leveling Frank Gifford, then glowering over him - one of the iconic images in the NFL's long and often violent history. The blindside hit in 1960 was deemed legal. Still, Gifford missed a year and a half, and his career was shortened because of the hit. Bednarik's celebration was thought by most to be over the top.
What about the often-replayed hit 30 years later, at a 1990 "Monday Night Football" game, by Denver's Steve Atwater on Kansas City's Christian Okoye?
And what about Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor? The Giants linebacker who victimized almost every quarterback of a certain vintage certainly would have written his fair share of checks.
"The game has changed," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said. "It softens up the game a lot. Everyone feels the same way. Everyone on defense at least. And we have no control over it."
As of late October, the NFL had levied 139 fines for a variety of reasons, including illegal and dangerous hits. Though the league did not offer any statistical updates, breakdowns or comparisons to previous years for this story, it appears to be putting teeth into Goodell's early season reminder to players and teams. In a letter sent to all the teams warning of a crackdown on hard hits, he said that even first-time offenders would be subject to fines for illegal hits.
"From this point forward, you should be clear on the following point: Any conduct that unnecessarily risks the safety of other players has no role in the game of football and will be disciplined at increased levels, including on a first offense," Goodell wrote.
An NFL spokesman said that historically, there are about 20 fines a week for illegal hits out of about 2,300 plays (153 per game).
The spokesman said hits that are clearly against the rules and dangerous are the only ones that result in fines, and that players and coaches receive detailed information each year defining illegal hits.
While the NFL says the rules are well-defined, many players and even teams fail to see the clarity.
The oddest thing is that a number of fines this year have come on plays that weren't penalized on the field. That happened twice, in successive weeks, to Hines Ward of Pittsburgh, long known as one of the best blocking receivers in the league.
The Steelers, feeling they were singled out after having players fined four times for a total of $50,000 in two weeks, had a meeting with NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson to clear the air.
"It's becoming more and more flag football, two-hand touch," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said in a statement that helped trigger the meeting with the NFL. "We've really lost the essence of what real American football is about. They're not really concerned about safety, because people have been doing this for ... quite a few decades."
The worst-case scenarios - Jack Tatum's hit that paralyzed Darryl Stingley in 1978 - are hardly fodder for the "best-of" clips that have become ubiquitous on sports highlights shows and the Internet.
Almost everything else is, and the confusion has reached the point where the players' union is considering stepping in, asking for a new process to appeal NFL fines as part of a new collective bargaining agreement.
"It is clear from our ongoing team meetings that players see league discipline as becoming more and more excessive, and that the best way to address the problem is to insist that the next CBA require neutral arbitration for league discipline," said a statement on the union Web site.
The way Colts tight end Dallas Clark sees it, "It's the league's job to make sure that the game is being played hard, but not penalizing hard play, but making an accurate judgment on hits that aren't necessary and really trying to protect the offensive players."
Clark has been the victim of many a hard hit, including one in 2005 by Denver's John Lynch that compelled the league to send Lynch a warning letter, telling him that officials would be monitoring him the next week in a playoff rematch with the Colts. Lynch said he laid out Clark to send a message for the playoff game.
"If you make the highlights these days, you're going to get fined," Lynch said then, perfectly framing the argument the way many players see it. "That's pretty much what it comes down to.
"It's kind of hypocritical. They put it on their 'greatest hits,' but they'll fine you for it, too," Lynch said of the league's attitude.
The hit that drew the biggest fine this year, Eric Smith's knockout shot on Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin that cost him $50,000, a one-game suspension and the game check that went with it (about $28,000), wasn't as cut-and-dried as it may have first appeared. Replays showed that Boldin was angled in a way that made helmet-to-helmet contact almost unavoidable. Smith insisted the NFL was trying to make an example of him. Both players, meanwhile, were said to have suffered concussions and Boldin had two broken bones in his face.
"I just feel like he was trying to make a tackle," said Wilson, Boldin's teammate. "It was unfortunate, but that's kind of been a point of emphasis around the league this year."
Meanwhile, Wilson's $25,000 fine for the hit on Edwards, the Bills quarterback, came despite absence of a flag.
Ward has been fined twice for hits that didn't draw penalties.
Chad Greenway of the Vikings got a $7,500 fine for pulling Reggie Bush's facemask, even though referee Ed Hochuli's crew missed the call, infuriating Saints coach Sean Payton.
Last week, Minnesota's Jared Allen got a $50,000 fine for a pair of hits on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, one of which forced Schaub out for up to a month with a knee injury. Neither hit drew a flag.
John Henderson of Jacksonville and Andrew Whitworth of Cincinnati each drew $10,000 fines for a fight in which Henderson knocked Whitworth's helmet off and tried to gouge his eyes. Both players were ejected. But the $10,000 fines were the same as the one levied against Carolina's Julius Peppers for a hit on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan that drew a flag for helmet-to-helmet contact, even though some replays made it look as though Peppers led with his shoulder.
"I think a lot of people are getting fined for crazy stuff, for little mistakes," said Peppers' teammate, defensive end Charles Johnson. "I guess that's what the league does. In my opinion, I didn't think it was a fineable penalty."
Of course, arguing with officials and the league gets players nowhere. A big chunk of the league's hundred-plus fines this season have come for criticizing refs.
Porter recently got a $20,000 fine for ripping on Hochuli and his crew after a Miami loss. He said if he knew the answer to why the NFL fines some hits that look OK and doesn't fine others that look worse "I'd still have 20 more thousand dollars."
"It's like they're trying to mess with us," Porter said. "We don't know what roughing the passer is anymore. You make just a general tackle and it's a flag, or not just a flag, but they go for your money."
AP Sports Writers Michael Marot in Indianapolis, David Ginsburg in Baltimore, Bob Baum in Phoenix, Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh and Mike Cranston in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.