It's a different NFL today than the one in which Ronnie Lott played during his 14-year Hall of Fame career with the 49ers, Raiders and Jets. The rules governing defensive players weren't as strict during Lott's playing days, and chances are some of his fierce hits might result in fines if he were active today.
But Lott insists he would have adjusted his game to play within the rules and applauds the league's efforts to cut down on gratuitous hits, especially ones involving the use of the helmet by defensive players, and the rules that ban hits on defenseless players (mostly wide receivers without the ball).
"I'm not going to give up $50,000 because I can't learn how to tackle the proper way," Lott said during a recent interview. "But to me, I still believe you can give fans that moment where they stand up and go, 'Oooh' [after a big hit]. There's nothing that's ever going to stop that."
Lott went back to a conversation he once had with former Giants slugger Barry Bonds, relating a change in the strike zone in the major leagues to the NFL's change in the strike zone for defensive players. That NFL strike zone now is almost exclusively from the knees to the shoulders.
"When they changed the [baseball] strike zone, Barry Bonds said to me, 'Hey, Ronnie, I had to learn a new strike zone very quickly.' So I believe that I would have learned the [NFL] strike zone very quickly. I've seen players and I've seen teams that have learned the [new] strike zone [in the NFL] very quickly. I see Seattle. They do a phenomenal job of playing the game of football and hitting guys, but doing it without the helmet.
"So it can be learned. It can be practiced," Lott said. "It can be something that guys will not only do better but become experts at it."
Lott therefore believes that the NFL can offer big hits and exciting defense while looking out for the well-being of the players on both sides of the ball. Rules to protect defenseless players have cut down, although not completely eliminated, cheap shots by defensive players. And a renewed emphasis on reducing helmet-to-helmet hits also has resonated.
Recent statistics included in the NFL's 2015 Health and Safety Report suggest the league's emphasis on player safety is paying dividends:
Since 2012, concussions are down by 35 percent in regular-season games.
Concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits are down 43 percent in that same span.
Since 2013, hits against defenseless players are down a whopping 68 percent.
Lott applauds the league's efforts and, unlike some other former players who believe the NFL has become too soft in legislating against violent hits, believes the long-term future of the league now is on a much better footing. But there's still a ways to go.
"To me, I'm still seeing those big [and clean] hits on the defensive side," he said. "If I hadn't seen those plays last year, maybe I'd think differently. Now, did I like the plays where somebody [on defense] used their head? No, I didn't. Did I like the plays where somebody tackled illegally or after the whistle? No, I didn't. And by the way, we can find ways to get those plays out of the game."
So yes, there still is some learning to be done by defensive players. But that will come, Lott said.
"It's learning for all of us right now," he said. "Learning for the fans, learning for all the athletes, learning for the kids who are playing the game. There's going to be a lot of learning that's going to happen here, and all for the better. You can still be an expert at being a great football player without using your head. I was paid to be an expert. I was paid to hopefully be [in the Hall of Fame]. The reason I got here is because I learned the attributes of how to play the game of football the right way. If the rules were what they are today, I would do the same thing."
What a terrific spokesman Lott would make for today's players, even if most of them weren't even born when he came into the league in 1981. He is universally respected in the football world, and his impeccable resume and reputation, combined with his thoughtful opinions, would help speed the process of making the game safer. Unfortunately, no one from the NFL has reached out to tap into his expertise.
"No, they haven't asked me to speak on the topic of hitting," he said.
They should. There's a lot to share.
"It's like becoming an expert writer, to constantly improve upon your skill . . . well, it's the same thing in football," Lott said. "Right now, we are so far away [in the NFL] from being able to do it the right way, even with the emphasis on it, because of the fact that you have to do it. If it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something, then we've got a long way to go when it comes to hitting."
Lott's conversations with some of today's players tell him as much.
"There are a lot of guys that will tell you they're learning how to hit again," he said. "To me, that's great that they're learning how to hit. We're going to have some people that are going to make some mistakes, but I believe that guys will learn and guys will get better and the game will get better because guys are learning an art that's been a great art for such a long time, but they're learning it in a different way."
Thoughtful words from a thoughtful former player who perfected the art of hitting in his own era. The NFL should include him in the push to make this a safer league while still retaining the big, clean hits. The hits that, as Lott says, make you go "Oooh."