Money comes and money goes, sometimes even for performing the exact same act. The fearless and violent style of play that led to the NFL and its referees assessing several fines and team penalties to Dashon Goldson during the 2012 season also helped him earn $18 million in guaranteed money from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the offseason. That’s probably an overly simplistic view of Goldson’s game and Tampa Bay’s interest in his services, but he and other NFL defenders play a high-stakes game when the opportunity to make contact presents itself. Health is of course a concern, but defensive players are expected to dole out punishment, even though a failure to do so correctly means taking a hit both on the field as a team and financially as individuals.

“We love the big hit and coach it and try to get it any time we can get it,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Tuesday. “We’re going to be as aggressive as we can and as physical as we can within the rules.”

About 15 minutes after Fangio’s press conference, I asked Eric Reid — who made a couple Goldson-like hits in his first NFL preseason game — how the coaches teach a player how to make the “big hit” when those types of plays aren’t allowed during practice.

“It’s all about the technique of a tackle,” Reid said. “It’s kind of hard to explain. If you watch us at practice, we do the bag drill. You just fit up, you’ve got to make sure your feet are on the ground. For me it’s not lunging at a guy. Coach (Ed) Donatell likes to say you get your power from the ground. As long as you have good mechanics and your feet are on the ground when you make contact, you can deliver a blow.”

Eric Reid Ed Donatell 49ers Practice

The correct fundamentals are needed, but players also need spacial awareness and knowledge of an NFL rulebook that changes yearly. NaVorro Bowman doesn’t particularly like some of the new rules coming into play this year, and he surely isn’t alone. One in particular the 49ers inside linebacker doesn’t understand is the “crown-of-helmet” rule, where running backs aren’t allowed to lower their heads to make contact when they’re outside the box and fighting for yards (you can hear his thoughts on that rule in the video below).

But as the NFL comes up with new ways to at least make it appear as if player safety is a key priority, the players must also adapt.

“If we want to play in this league we have to abide by the rules,” Bowman said. “What’s going to make you adjust quickly is those fines that you receive in the mail. That tends to work. Any time money’s being taken out of your pocket you’re going to find a way to correct it.

Bowman is resigned to the fact that he can’t play the same way in the NFL that he did while growing up, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

“There’s no CBA when you’re growing up learning about football. Coaches at a young age try to figure out if you have that dog in you, if you have that anger in you,” Bowman said. “That’s the football we’ve been used to playing. Hard-nosed football. Hitting, wrapping, getting your man down any way that we can. I don’t know why the NFL doesn’t want us to play that way anymore. Safety is the key answer, but football is a contact sport.”

It all adds up to a set of requirements for players that are almost impossible to fulfill simultaneously. On one side, coaches want to see the “big hit” because it’s a play that can both intimidate an opponent and jar the ball loose. Coaches may understand the pain a player feels when their money goes back into the NFL coffers, but they’re concerned more with 15-yard penalties than a player’s bank account. Players want to help their teams, get featured on highlights shows and get contracts like Goldson’s, but getting the reputation of being a dirty player comes with a price. That’s something Bowman already knows, and it’s something Reid will experience for himself in the weeks and years to come.


NFL Fines (2012/13 San Francisco 49ers)

  • Tarell Brown: $5,250 (Other Uniform/Equipment Violation – 9/21/12)
  • Dashon Goldson: $7,875 (Taunting – 10/26/12)
  • Ray McDonald: $21,000 (Hit on a Defenseless Player – 11/16/12)
  • Dashon Goldson: $7,875 (Roughing the Passer – 12/7/12)
  • NaVorro Bowman: $10,000 (Late Hit – 12/7/12)
  • Dashon Goldson: $21,000 (Helmet-to-Helmet Hit – 12/20/12)
  • Michael Crabtree: $10,500 (Football Into Stands – 1/4/13)
  • Frank Gore: $10,500 (Football Into Stands – 1/4/13)
  • Frank Gore: $10,500 (Other Uniform/Equipment Violation – 1/23/13)

Total fines: $104,500 (Goldson: $36,750)

Violence-related fines (Hit on a Defenseless Player, Roughing the Passer, etc.): $59,875

Uniform/Taunting/Celebration fines: $44,625