While channel surfing several years ago, former Seahawks safety Kenny Easley, one of the hardest-hitting players the NFL has seen, came across the League's Pro Bowl game on television and "didn't know what I was watching."
"I thought I was watching flag football, to be very honest with you," Easley said on a conference call with Seattle-area reporters last week. "It was pitiful."
The NFL's annual all-star exhibition isn't the best measuring stick for how professional football is played today, but it still represented a stark contrast from the game Easley enjoyed for seven seasons with the Seahawks before a kidney ailment forced him to retire.
Known as 'The Enforcer' for his on-field physicality, Easley, Seattle's first pick in the 1981 draft (No. 4 overall) who was named to the Pro Bowl five times, voted first-team All-Pro three times, earned 1984's NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, and was a member of the 1980s All-Decade Team — all of which amounted to his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2017 this past Saturday — said he wrote a letter to the League voicing his displeasure for what he believed the game had become, noting, "Initially I thought the League was growing soft, I mean really soft."
"I actually wrote a letter to the commissioner, Rodger Goodell, telling him that I was terribly disturbed by what was being represented as pro football in the Pro Bowl game," Easley said.
But eventually, Easley came to a realization.
"After becoming more in tune with the issues of head injuries and CTE and all of the other issues surrounding head trauma, I understand why the game had to be altered," Easley said. "If the game continued on the path that it was in the 80s and the 70s and 60s, when the players get bigger, faster, stronger, I mean, my God, you would probably have a majority of the players in the league with some sort of head trauma, head injury, etcetera.
"I understand why they had to change the game," he added. "And I applaud them for doing it."
As head injury awareness increases in today's NFL, the Seahawks under head coach Pete Carroll have become one of football's most influential programs when it comes to teaching players how to tackle safely.
In 2014, led by then assistant head coach/defense Rocky Seto, who has since left the team to become a minister, Seattle released a video showcasing the 'Hawk Tackle,' which emphasized taking the head and helmet out of the hit by utilizing a leverage-based shoulder takedown similar to the way athletes tackle in rugby, where shoulder pads and helmets are absent. The result was a decrease in injuries and reduction of missed tackles, and rather than keep their techniques under wraps, the Seahawks chose to share it with the football world in an effort to make the game safer at all levels.
Seahawks' current starting safety Kam Chancellor has carried on 'The Enforcer' nickname in Seattle, and his intimidating play is often compared to the punishing player that Easley once was. That's part of the reason why Easley has so much respect for Chancellor's game, especially when it comes to the way today's NFL is officiated with an emphasis on player safety.
"It's a difficult thing right now to play football, particularly for players like Kam Chancellor, who like myself, was a warrior," Easley said. "He's a warrior and he plays the game at that level that when he's out on the football field it's, 'Let's go get the guy and put him down by any means possible.' You can't do that anymore. You can't put a guy down by any means possible, particularly with your head.
"The game has changed and is really hard to legislate in terms of officiating because the action is so quick, the movements are so swift out there. A hit that was made with a shoulder looks like to the referee a hit that was made with the helmet. Guys are getting penalties unless they rerun the hit, which they do on most cases, and still under some circumstances a guy who hit with his shoulder still gets penalized for hitting with his head because the action happened so quickly. Even when they run it in slow motion they can't legislate whether this guy hit with his shoulder or his head. So I understand why they do it. I don't like it, but I understand why they do it."
Easley may not be a fan how the game he played has transformed over the years, but he said the evolution makes sense, and while the NFL may not be at the top of his channel-surfing list, he makes a point to watch the Seahawks "because I played for the Seahawks," and he's come away impressed with players like Chancellor, free safety Earl Thomas, and linebacker Bobby Wagner, who amongst others on Seattle's defense have found ways to play physically — legally — in today's NFL.
"I like Kam Chancellor, I like the way he plays the game," Easley said. "Earl Thomas as well, I like the way both of them play the game. [Bobby Wagner], the linebacker, I really like the way this guy plays the game. I watch the Seahawks and that's basically it, but I understand why the game has changed."
Take a look back at some of the best moments from the career of former Seahawks safety Kenny Easley, who was announced as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017 on Saturday, February 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas the night before Super Bowl LI.