In Week 10 of the 2013 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints beat the San Francisco 49ers 23-20. On the surface, the game’s outcome (which will ultimately have major playoff implications for the NFC) looks like a close battle that came down to the wire between two very good teams. For those who watched the events unfold though, what actually happened will tell a different story.
With 3:12 left in the game, the Saints trailed 20-17 and faced a 3rd down. As Drew Brees dropped back to pass, Ahmad Brooks came closing in. Brees, who stands about 6’0 tall, ducked in anticipation of the oncoming hit and was tackled around the shoulder and neck area by the 6’3 Brooks. Brees fumbled and the ball was recovered by the 49ers close to midfield, essentially sealing the game.
Not so fast.
The sack on Brees was ruled illegal because Brooks tackled him around the neck area. Brooks was flagged for the hit and the Saints were given new life. They tied the game shortly after and eventually went on to beat San Francisco. Brooks would go on to be fined by the league for the hit, who stuck to their guns that it was indeed illegal. While hitting a quarterback in the head area is a penalty under the new rules, it appeared Brooks got more of the shoulder and the hit looked worse than it actually was. Regardless, there is no consistency on a call like this one week to week in the league. Take, for example, this sack of Matt Ryan.
Ryan’s hit was very similar the one Brees took, but it was not called a penalty. If the hit on Ryan was not called in the beginning of the second quarter with the outcome of the game far from being determined in one case, how can it be called as a game deciding penalty in another. Did the officials miss it in Ryan’s case? Is the rule up for interpretation?
Fast forward to Week 15 and a matchup between to Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. Antonio Brown is in the process of returning a punt when Bengals punter Kevin Huber turns to close in on him. As he moves to his left, Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin puts a block on him in which his helmet hits the punter directly in jaw. Huber would ultimately break his jaw and crack a vertebrae. No flag was thrown and, as of today, a fine is yet to be given (that could change, however).
While the play may not have had the impact on the game’s outcome that the Brooks/Brees one had (the Steelers won the game comfortably 30-20), it’s a perfect example of the hypocrisy of the NFL. The league, and it’s questionable commissioner Roger Goodell, want to give the illusion of safety in the midst of more and more former players coming out and saying they are suffering the after effects of too many hits to the head.
In attempting to make the game “safer” they are trying to essentially outlaw hits above the head and unnecessary shots to defenseless receivers. The outcome has been a group of officials who appear to have no idea when to throw and flag and when not to throw one. It makes it impossible for defenders to do their job and has effected the outcomes of countless games. An example? Well what could be worse than a pass interference call in the closing seconds of a close game that puts the ball on the one yard line for a team, allowing them to score and win the contest? Cleveland Browns fans may be able to answer that.
Given some of the stories that have been coming out about retired players suffering in their post football years, you can’t blame the league for advocating safety. The issue is that there is no consistency in how they are trying to police it. The rules have to be made within reason and the officials need clear guidelines on what is and what is not a penalty. If there is not a clear line drawn, the game with ultimately suffer the consequences.
Photo: Dave Martin/AP