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A mixed message: Vince Wilfork and Adalius Thomas penalties

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Props to BabeParilli for "getting me going" with this fanpost.

Guys like Vince Wilfork and Adalius Thomas have a job and their job is to hit people. In many cases, to to hit people and bring them to the ground. This also involves getting at the quarterback, especially in Adalius' case. As an outside linebacker, one of his jobs is to generate QB pressure with a pass rush. You know, chase down the passer.

I'm all for protecting the passer. Like kickers, there are moments when these players are EXTREMELY vulnerable to injury. In certain cases, they would be unable to complete their job AND worry about protecting themselves. Hence, the league has stepped in and tried to prevent certain defensive instincts or behaviors (kill the guy with the ball) through the use of penalties and fines. That's what people try to do: develop rules and guidelines so everyone is on the same page. Unfortunately, those same rules and guidelines are enforced by humans. More accurately, said humans interpretation of the rules.

Before we go any further, I had no problem with Bernard Pollard's hit on Tom Brady. Yes, I had a problem with the outcome but, as the rules stood at the time, his hit was not illegal. Did he lunge at Brady? Sure. Could he have held up a bit and not ended Brady's season? Sure. But with Sammy Morris on your back and the stakes as high as they are in an NFL game, you do your job and go after an offensive player. As painful as this video is to watch, the first part is full speed while the second part is numerous slow motion angles. The full speed portion gives you an idea of just how fast this game is.

The reason why I went through the Tom Brady hit was to add some context to the Vince Wilfork and Adalius Thomas roughing the passer calls in our season opener against the Buffalo Bills, both of which I believe to be totally bogus for different reasons. For some more context, here's a cut and past of the NFL rules digest on protecting the passer:

Protection of Passer

  1. By interpretation, a pass begins when the passer -- with possession of ball -- starts to bring his hand forward. If ball strikes ground after this action has begun, play is ruled an incomplete pass. If passer loses control of ball prior to his bringing his hand forward, play is ruled a fumble.
  2. When a passer is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional movement forward of his arm starts a forward pass. If a defensive player contacts the passer or the ball after forward movement begins, and the ball leaves the passer’s hand, a forward pass is ruled, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player.
  3. No defensive player may run into a passer of a legal forward pass after the ball has left his hand (15 yards). The Referee must determine whether opponent had a reasonable chance to stop his momentum during an attempt to block the pass or tackle the passer while he still had the ball.
  4. No defensive player who has an unrestricted path to the quarterback may hit him flagrantly in the area of the knee(s) or below when approaching in any direction.
  5. Officials are to blow the play dead as soon as the quarterback is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler, and his safety is in jeopardy.

Wilfork, with a clear line of site to Bills' quarterback Trent Edwards, simply tackled Edwards. He put his helmet into Edwards, wrapped his arms around him, and brought him to the ground. The flag was "supposedly" thrown because the refs felt Wilfork was too low on Edwards. That is, "The Brady Rule" or point #4 from above. Wilfork was nowhere near Edwards' knees. I was there and I watched it on the Jumbotron about a thousand times as well as highlights this past week and countless radio show minutes analyzing it. Over zealous refereeing?

Now, Adalius Thomas's hit was questionable. The moment a ref sees a defender swinging the quarterback around and to the ground, he interprets that as throwing the quarterback to the ground. Edwards just wouldn't go down and, as a defender, you don't want the quarterback on his feet; they can, you know, throw passes. In hindsight (with the advantage of slow motion), Thomas probably could've "hugged" Edwards to the ground by wrapping his arms around him and falling down. At full speed, you have little time to think about this stuff, so I don't necessarily fault Thomas for his tackle.

Thomas' hit could've gone either way, but the penalty actually should've been called against the refs. Point #5 from above, "Officials are to blow the play dead as soon as the quarterback is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler, and his safety is in jeopardy." clearly outlines the course of action for the referee. Edwards was in Thomas' control and had no chance of breaking free. Had they blown the whistle, Thomas would've let go and that would've been it. This one was on the refs for a late whistle. Adalius is right to appeal the fine.

It will be interesting to see if the refs settle down. Just like the players, the beginning of the season is a bit of a shakeout period, a time to learn how to interpret new rules and apply them to live game situations. Let's hope they hurry up or the league office is going to be darn busy with appeals.