We may have finally reached the line of demarcation where the NFL's desire for quarterback safety has passed the league's need for on-field logic.
In Sunday's game between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints, 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks was flagged for a personal foul late in the fourth quarter after sacking Saints quarterback Drew Brees and forcing a fumble. The ball was recovered by San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, but the turnover was negated by the penalty. The 49ers were up 20-17 at the time, and the penalty gave the Saints a fresh set of downs and moved the ball from the San Francisco 45-yard line (where the 49ers would have had possession) to the San Francisco 30. Five plays later, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley booted a 42-yard field goal to tie the game, and the Saints pulled out a win on their next possession when Hartley kicked a 31-yarder with three seconds left on the clock.
After the game, Brooks was not amused. We're assuming Brooks was even less amused when he got a notice from the league on Wednesday that he was fined $15,750 from the hit.
“I didn’t hit him with my hand or my helmet,” he said. “I basically bear-hugged him. That’s just how football is played. I think this s--- is bull----. Football, the way they call stuff these days, it’s watered down. It ain’t real no more.”
On Monday, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh put it as succinctly as possible.
“I think the thoughts that everybody has with their own individual eyes," the coach said, when asked his thoughts on the Brooks hit after he'd had a chance to review it. "Do you need my opinion on it? Our interpretation was, when we grade a player, if he’s got a penalty we give him a minus, but we did not assign a minus on that play. That’s our interpretation ... I empathize with him. I thought he made a great play. And, it didn’t get the result.”
On Tuesday, NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino appeared on the NFL Network to explain the league's point of view.
"You can't make forcible contact to the head or the neck area, even if the contact starts below the neck and rises up," Blandino said. "If there's force to that contact, it's a foul. Watch the initial contact, maybe around the shoulder, but it rides up into the neck area and brings the quarterback down with force. That's why the flag was thrown for unnecessary roughness."
And that's also why NFL defenders are so completely frustrated by the league's current rules regarding quarterbacks in the pocket. It's clear upon review of the play that Brooks hit Brees along the shoulder and collarbone area -- this was not an attempt to hit the head or neck in any way, shape, or form. As Brees is hit, he goes down, and Brooks' arm subsequently goes up. Blandino made the case that the quarterback is a defenseless player in the act of passing, and that even if the contact starts below the head and neck area, it's a flag if the contact continues there.
Brooks and other NFL defenders wonder just how they're supposed to play the game anymore, and they certainly have a valid point -- especially now that the league has heaped additional justification on the questionable penalty.
Brees was asked about the penalty on Tuesday, and even he had trouble justifying it as an intentional act.
"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees said. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that … and again in real-time … you can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the [arm is].' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"
Yes, but Brees may be confusing cause and effect there, just as the NFL has. Brooks' arm sliding up to Brees' face seems from every angle to be the inevitable result of geometry and gravity. And while it's very clear that officials have been directed to err on the side of the offensive player at all times (especially when that offensive player is a quarterback), the whipsaw decision to penalize defenders for what can only be classified as incidental contact at the end of a play seems to be an overreaction -- especially when defensive players don't have the advantage of replay on these types of judgment calls.
On Monday, future Hall of Fame linebacker and current ESPN analyst Ray Lewis set the league on blast regarding the penalty (H/T to For the Win's Chris Chase for the transcript).
“This is the most embarrassing call in the National Football League since the tuck rule and Tom Brady. I’m serious. I’ve just never seen this type of insult to defenders. When you do your job, when you make the perfect play -- if he takes the same hit -- and hits a quarterback like Peyton Manning who’s 6-foot-4, 6-5, he hits him in his chest area. Drew Brees is 6-foot or shorter. When you look at the hit, Ahmad Brooks took the hit and hit him exactly where he was supposed to hit him. Drew Brees’ neck slid DOWN to that man's arm. You cannot -- you cannot -- first of all, for that to be a flag is embarrassing. Let me tell you the second embarrassing thing. The second part that’s embarrassing about this is for Drew Brees to say, ‘I got hit so hard I knew it had to be a flag.’ THIS IS THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THAT MEANS. When you get hit like that from the blind side, it’s supposed to hurt!
“But I’ll tell you this, if they fine this kid, if they go on record and they fine this kid, Ahmad Brooks, I’m gonna do something personally. I’m gonna pay half. Half. If they fine this kid, Trent, I’m gonna pay half of this kid’s fine, because of one reason -- because of one reason -- defenders have to be respected as men before anything else. [...] And that man laid a clean hit and that cost the San Francisco 49ers a complete football game yesterday and could have cost them in the playoffs.”
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Lewis is ready to make good on his promise.
Is it great that the NFL is taking a stronger stance on player safety? Of course it is. But the league must also understand that no matter how much you try to legislate the violence out of the game, it will still exist. Creating a slanted field in which defensive players are penalized in theory before the whistle blows makes about as much sense as the NFL's antiquated stances on player safety before this new awareness.
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