Last night watching Monday Night Football there were a lot of questions after a violent hit by Isa Abdul-Quddus on Hakeem Nicks was flagged for a 15-yard penalty. Some people think that it shouldn’t have been a penalty. Most notable among those people is Jon Gruden who claimed pretty flatly that he didn’t think it was a penalty. At home, many (including this dork) were rewinding and examining the hit with their DVRs to see exactly what happened with a Zapruder-like level of detail. I could see a lot of people working hard to find ways that it wasn’t a penalty. Problem being that this iteration of the NFL is intent on looking at plays that result in ultra-violence in an attempt to justify throwing a flag not the opposite.
The NFL fan desperately wants to see a shoulder make contact first in attempt to prove that the referee was wrong. It is an effort in vain though because the NFL has written the rules in such a way that they want referees to use their discretion to justify flags on any play that even approximates the hit that Abdul-Quddus put on Hakeem Nicks. We learned this last year with T.J. Ward vs. Jordan Shipley. The game has changed. Just get used to it. If you don’t believe me, check out the rules.
Under the “UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS” category on page 73, the NFL leaves the rules open-ended. “There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to:” … This precedes a list of items “a” through “j.” “but will not be limited to” is the most important phrase in the section because it justifies every flag on ever violent looking hit to a “defenseless” player. The specific point that I believe the referee referred to last night is item j.
(j) if a player illegally launches into a defenseless opponent. It is an illegal launch if a player (1) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, and (2) uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body
The rulebook goes into further detail to help define a defenseless player.
Article 9 – (b) Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:
(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; and
(2) Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body
With all that language, the referees basically had no choice but to throw a flag on Abdul-Quddus who was celebrating his giant hit with teammates as Hakeem Nicks was attempting to recover on the ground surrounded by training staff.
Now, I’ll admit that Abdul-Quddus did not leave both feet. But, with the latitude in the stated rules for referees, we should all just come to expect that a play that looks like this is a penalty in the NFL now. The NFL’s initiatives are clearly to minimize head injuries from violent collisions and whether or not you agree with the rules, it is silly to try and claim that this shouldn’t be a flag the way they’ve put the rulebook together. They also send referees around to all the training camps to explain these things to teams in the hopes that the teams will recognize the changes in the game and coach technique accordingly.
I am not delusional enough to think I can make anyone like the rules. I don’t love them myself. That being said, there is no way to put this toothpaste back in the tube. Just like nobody will ever repeal a child bike helmet law, the NFL will (probably) never go backward on rules with regard to player safety. They want flags thrown on plays like this.
What does this mean? It means that the position of free safety and strong safety are in a state of flux. It makes sense to have a hard-hitting safety in the running game. In the passing game, you are probably better off with a ridiculous athlete like A.J. Green because it is almost completely illegal to try and separate a receiver from the ball with a hit. You are better off playing with a safety who can make a move on the ball or can get his hands in a receiver’s breadbasket to knock the ball out. Knocking the receiver out will get you a flag every time no matter what form you might use to hit a guy that the league has now deemed to be “defenseless.”
The NFL has a real P.R. problem too. Among those who were claiming this was a “clean hit” were Jon Gruden, ESPN’s Jemele Hill and many others. If the media that works for companies that have contracts with the NFL can’t understand the rules, how are fans supposed to understand?
I mean I still can’t figure out how Calvin Johnson’s touchdown catch wasn’t a touchdown catch a year ago. That’s not on you and me. That’s on the NFL.