Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

Browns safety T.J. Ward ended Rob Gronkowski’s season with a direct shot to the knee on Sunday. Was it legal? Yes. But it shouldn’t be. What will it take for the NFL to change its rules and protect all defenseless players?

By Greg A. Bedard
December 09, 2013

“If I were to hit him up high, there’s a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe.” — Browns safety T.J. Ward.

Before we get into a discussion about what I think is the root of the lingering player safety issue—enhancing the protection for all defenseless players—let’s just put this to bed: Ward and other defensive backs, like Brandon Meriweather, who explain away knee-shots on receivers by saying they fear getting fined, are not telling the truth. There are plenty of other places to tackle opponents below their heads that don’t involve ending someone’s season. The players are using it as an excuse when accused of delivering a dirty hit. It’s like saying your PED suspension happened because of a lapsed Adderall prescription: the rules are to blame, not me.

The rules are to blame. But not just the ones on the books, like Ward and others say. It’s also the rules that aren’t in place, but should be, that are responsible.

Ward knew he’d bounce off Gronkowski, so he made a legal tackle that resulted in Gronkowski tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee, ending his season and dealing a serious blow to the Patriots with the playoffs just around the corner. It’s the same thing we saw when Ravens safety Matt Elam hit Packers receiver Randall Cobb in Week 5, and when Texans safety D.J. Swearinger took down Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller in the preseason. All of them were legal. It’s time to make them illegal.

AP Photo/Steven Senne Ward’s season-ending hit on Gronkowski in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 27-26 victory over the Browns on Sunday. (Steven Senne/AP)

I know that tackling low—especially for the 5-10, 200 pound Ward going against the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski—has been around since the game was born. Going low to make an open-field tackle is one thing, because receivers have an opportunity to make a cut or leap over the defender. But players in defenseless positions, like Gronkowski, Cobb and Keller all were, deserve to know their careers won’t be jeopardized before they can actually perform a football move.

The NFL is a brutal enough sport. It should be in the business of protecting all of its defenseless players, not just the delicate flowers who play quarterback and kick the ball. Those positions are protected from all leg shots when defenseless. Quarterbacks are actually overprotected. Consider Rule 12.2.9e: “A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee.” As we’ve seen in the NFL this season, quarterbacks are basically protected from the thigh down, and the upper chest up. That leaves about a two foot section to hit the golden boys. It’s ridiculous.

It’s time to streamline it all and make a better rule. The goal is to avoid concussions and catastrophic knee injuries on all defenseless players, including the ignored interior defensive linemen. The rule should read: “All defenseless players, including defensive linemen without an opportunity to see a low block from the side, are protected from hits to the head (not the shoulder and neck area) and direct shots to the knee.” If somebody hits Brady in the ankle, too bad; get better blockers. We’re not even talking about hits that happen all that often. It wouldn’t be that much of a change.

Sure, there would be cries of, “How am I supposed to play defense now?” just like there were when head shots were outlawed. But it took just a season for defensive backs to lower their target zone, and to realize that a good, hard chest shot can sometimes be more effective than nailing a guy in the helmet. It wouldn’t take long for defenders to understand that either they have to dive to the ground to take out a guy’s legs below the knees, or hit him right above the belt. It probably won’t prevent a few gruesome broken ankles, but given the choice between those and ACL/MCL reconstructions and dislocated knees, shouldn’t we take it?

The good news, according to NFL sources, is that the competition committee will look at this issue after the season. But I have my doubts whether any changes will be made. Coaches think there’s too much legislation in the game already, and owners won’t take up the cause of slot receivers and tight ends like they do quarterbacks who move merchandise.

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