Violent Hits Are Pretty Much Banned by NFL Rules

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.

  • Chris

    We all like seeing players get blown up like that, but anytime you use your helmet as a weapon you’re going to get a flag. This particular play was pretty borderline if you ask me, but come on… those are real people playing that game. I’d rather see the borderline calls go in the direction of player safety rather than have defenders think they can get away with spearing a receiver.

    It seemed in recent years it was becoming more and more of a tactic to just launch yourself at a receiver’s head and stun him so he drops the ball than to actually play defense. I didn’t find that fun to watch.

  • Derek

    I understand the NFL’s point of trying to protect the players, but rules like these takes the instincts out of the game and players will begin to think before reacting. You will see more plays like the giants player quitting before recording a sack.

  • humboldt

    @Derek – what you call “instinct” is actually learned behavior. Players simply were trained to play defense under a slightly different set of rules than exist now.

    However, the rules have changed to protect the brains and lifelong health of players, so everyone must adapt accordingly. I have absolutely no problem with any of the penalties/fines that have been handed out the past two years (including TJ Ward & Jordan Shipley).

    I applaud the NFL for showing some coherent leadership after the dark ages of Gene Upshaw.

  • Harv 21

    Agree with Chris and Humboldt.

    These new rules feel a little hypocritical because they reign in the very cartoon violence the league and networks have used to popularize the NFL. Bam!!

  • Omar’s Magic Glove

    What I don’t really get with these penalties is what really makes a receiver become defined as “defenseless”? Is there a certain amount of steps he must take, or at what point after a completed catch is he not defenseless any longer? For example, the hit on Nicks came before he got two feet down so I assume that’s defenseless, but later in that game as a retaliation I guess, Jimmy Graham got leveled, but to me seems like he caught the ball took two steps dragging the DB on his hip, then gets lit up by the safety. This play drew the same penalty, but to me the receiver isn’t still defenseless. Here’s the Graham hit:

  • kev

    It’s always difficult to protect athletes in a “violent” sport. However I agree that anytime the guys making the rule try to do that, you can’t really argue with hit. Seeing some players getting knocked out pure and simple a few years ago was scary and made me shiver more than one time.

    And frankly I’m not sure i wanna see kids see that and learn that knocking out people is actually fun…