Prior to the 2017 season, the NFL continued to reiterate that they were taking precautions and new measures to ensure player safety. The concern for CTE continued to rise with new developments in science and more suicides and early deaths by once prominent and proud NFL stars. What’s hot in the streets this week is the NFL and suspensions, with some vicious hits this weekend by several players, including Rob Gronkowski.
The 10 player conduct suspensions this year have been the most of any year in NFL history, and there is still a quarter of the season to go. When I first thought of this topic to write about, I was planning on dissecting the violations to provide context to Gronk’s upheld suspension. At the end, I honestly had more questions than answers.
Preseason: Vontaze Burfict vs Anthony Sherman
Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman started by chip blocking, then went out for a route. Vontaze Burfict hit him with his forearm to the head/neck area. There was no penalty for illegal contact because it was within 5 yards and there was no penalty for unnecessary roughness. Result: 5 game suspension, reduced to 3 on appeal.
I mean, what can I say about this hit? By the rules of the NFL, this was a legal hit that somehow turned into a 3 game suspension. Don’t get me wrong, I think Burfict is a garbage player that looks to be dirty at every possible opportunity, but this did not deserve even a fine.
From the NFL rulebook, a player is considered defenseless if:
A receiver running a pass route when the defender approaches from the side or behind.
If the receiver becomes a blocker or assumes a blocking posture, he is no longer a defenseless player.
Beginning in 2017, a receiver running a route will receive defenseless player protection when the defender approaches him from behind or the side. This protection prohibits forcible contact to the head or neck area, and forcible contact with the crown of the helmet to any part of the body.
I’m sorry, but none of that applies to this Burfict hit on Sherman. Even though it was forcible hit to the head area, the hit is from front, which is clear when slowing down the tape.
They are not 100% squared up, but it’s clearly not from the side.
Week 4: Danny Trevathan hit vs Davante Adams
This hit occurred on a 3rd and goal to go. Adams caught a short pass well behind the end zone and was trying to gain more yards. He was wrapped up, but he was still moving his legs and forward progress had not been called. Adams was not a defenseless receiver. Trevathan got flagged for a “hit to the head area” but was not ejected. Trevathan was a first time offender, having never been fined in his career prior to this game. Result: 2 game suspension, reduced to 1 on appeal.
This is an example of a borderline illegal hit where he uses the crown of his helmet to tackle. The only problem is that this exact type of play has already has happened, and there was no penalty or suspension. This Ryan Shazier tackle with the crown of his helmet on Gio Bernard during the 2015 playoffs actually resulted in a fumble and no consequences.
When asked to clarify, Dean Blandino defended the hit as clean.
"If he has established himself as a runner -- control, both feet, ability to ward off, attempt to avoid contact, that time element -- if that time element has been met, then he can be contacted in the head," Blandino said. "You watch the play. [There's] control, he's going to take several steps, he's going to turn and become a runner. So he's not a defenseless player at the time of contact."
As to the point about leading with the crown of his helmet, Shazier would have been at risk for earning a penalty had he and Bernard been traveling at the same angle, Blandino said. He added that Bernard's momentum was angled toward the sideline, while Shazier was moving directly north/south.
"The theory being, when players are moving at [the same] angles, they don't have as much opportunity to avoid that contact," Blandino said.
In the play with Adams, he’s not defenseless. He’s a runner that is still moving his feet. And the 2nd argument that Blandino makes with regards to the crown of the helmet can apply in this situation as well. When Trevathan launches himself at Adams, Adams is still moving. The moving target meant that the point of contact being the head wasn’t the intended point of contact at the beginning of his decision to launch his body.
How is this launching of the body on a guy that was moving late any different than the hit Kiko Alonso had on Joe Flacco that concussed him? Alonso had a history and he got no suspension. These hits are obviously brutal, and it’s terrible that Davante Adams had to be rushed to the hospital after the hit, but I’m inclined to believe that they are both legal and just unfortunate consequences of what is a very physical game.
Week 6: Marshawn Lynch vs an official
There was a scuffle on the field involving Marcus Peters. Lynch, Peters’ relative, left the bench area and ran onto the field. After entering the fray, he eventually grabbed and pushed an official away. Lynch was ejected from the game. Result: 1 game suspension, upheld on appeal.
I think that this suspension was warranted. Lynch is more than forceful with the official and leaves the bench area to enter the scrum in the first place. But what is the threshold for enough contact with an official that would cause an ejection? For example Burfict was ejected for this.
That hardly looks like anything. Burfict, a repeat offender, wasn’t even fined for the play.
Week 6: Andrew Sendejo hit vs Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace runs a slant and the ball is jarred loose on a vicious hit to the head area by Andrew Sendejo. It was called a fumble on the field and Wallace was not defenseless, having established himself as a runner. Sendejo did have a recent history, having been fined for a week 3 helmet-to-helmet hit against Cameron Brate. Result: 1 game suspension, upheld on appeal.
I know the danger of concussions all too well as a person that has suffered multiple ones throughout my high school and college sports career. The most notable one that I had was in high school when I suffered a concussion playing Ultimate Frisbee, went to my junior prom that night, and then was back on the field the next day after lying and saying that I had no symptoms. Back in 2011, that was the kind of mentality athletes had towards concussions. The new NFL player safety protocol was just in its infancy at the time.
With that being said, I’m sorry, but there’s no way that this should be suspension-worthy, even with Sendejo’s history from just 3 weeks prior. This is a good football hit that occurs every game. Again, it’s unfortunate what happened, and Wallace was clearly concussed, but the hit simply wasn’t reckless at all. This is an example of the NFL reacting to the injury, but not the hit.
Week 9: Mike Evans vs Marshon Lattimore
After Lattimore and Winston got into a minor scuffle, Evans ran full speed into Lattimore from behind, absolutely crushing him and sending him to the ground. Evans was ejected, and while he has been ejected in the past for abuse of officials, he has never violated player safety policies. Result: 1 game suspension, upheld on appeal.
This hit is probably the best comparison to the Gronk hit. It’s retaliatory, after the whistle, and it’s a brutal blindside hit near his own sideline. As a first time offender, this hit likely set the precedent for the discipline on Gronk’s hit.
Week 11: Aqib Talib vs Michael Crabtree
After a borderline illegal block by Crabtree against Chris Harris Jr. the play before, Crabtree lined up against Aqib Talib on the following snap, a run play. Crabtree aggressively blocked Talib out of bounds, in a similiar vein to Rob Gronkowski’s famous “throw him out of the club” block against Sergio Brown. The block was clearly illegal and deserved an unnecessary roughness penalty, but unlike Gronk’s situation, the play continued to escalate, with Talib and Crabtree quickly coming to blows.
There was a clear history with Talib and Crabtree with them feuding last year over Crabtree’s chain. And both Talib and Crabtree have had multiple on the field altercations with other players. Result: 2 game suspension for both, both reduced to 1 on appeal.
A lot to parse through on this one and naturally, it drew many comparisons to the Jalen Ramsey vs A.J. Green fight in Week 9. I think that we can all agree that the fight between Talib and Crabtree was much more malicious, but was the Ramsey vs Green bout really not suspension worthy, especially from Green’s side?
Is a previous history (both Ramsey and Green were clean prior to the altercation) really worth an extra game? The NFL sure seems so. Whether or not that’s fair or not is up to debate, but it’s clear that the NFL operates on a relatively arbitrary scale when evaluating how to police fighting after the whistle.
Week 13: Rob Gronkowski vs Tre’Davious White
In last Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, with 4:50 left in he 4th quarter, Tom Brady dropped back on 3rd and 7 and launched a pass down the right sideline. Covered by Tre’Davious White, Rob Gronkowski was pulled and ultimately fell down as White undercut him for the athletic interception. After being touched down by Philip Dorsett, Gronkowski chopped his feet and launched his body into White. As a result, Gronkowski was assessed an unneccesary roughness penalty and White found himself in concussion protocol. Gronk was not ejected and did not have a history. Result: 1 game suspension, upheld on appeal.
I’m not here to defend this hit, but I’m here to put it into context. First of all, let’s tune in to the Twitter lynch mob that wakes up whenever a New England Patriot does anything questionable. The hit looked bad, and quite frankly was bad, but the level of hysteria over a dirty hit from a 1st time offender was mind-boggling. I honestly had to take a break from Twitter because everyone became all sanctimonious all at once. It soon became a competition of who could overreact more to a hit. Here’s a small sampling out of thousands full of fake outrage.
Rodney Harrison sums it up perfectly on the Gronkowski cheap shot: It you do that on the streets, you're going to jail.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) December 4, 2017
Get a hold of yourself Florio. If an NFL game was played on the streets every single tackle would be considered to be an assault. Bad take by a guy who’s supposed to be a lawyer.
This. What if someone did that to Brady after the snap. How would you react? https://t.co/hASsvUh1IN— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 3, 2017
Rich, I’ll always love you for giving me a platform for my outrageous sports takes, but this is a textbook false equivalency that I saw all over the internet. “What if it was Brady?” “What if it happened to your favorite player?” “What if it was your loved one?” “What if it was your cat?” Well, news flash, it’s not. The person it happened to has absolutely no effect on what the penalty or punishment should be. Appealing to that kind of logic only reveals that you are grasping for straws because whatever argument that you’re pushing just isn’t convincing enough.
Honestly, I don’t mind Gronk’s suspension. In a vacuum, it’s a dirty hit after the whistle that was reckless and ultimately concussed an opposing player. If you get a game for that behavior, then I’m not going to die on that hill saying that it’s unjust that he’s suspended. All I’m asking for is consistency. Why wasn’t Gronk ejected? Why was Mike Evans ejected and then suspended? Why do many head shots not result in suspension? Why do first time offenders sometimes get the benefit of the doubt (AJ Green) and others don’t?
Week 13: Juju Smith-Schuster vs Vontaze Burfict
Smith-Schuster hits Burfict with a crackback block in the head or neck area and absolutely levels him. Burfict leaves the game with a vague injury that was officially announced as a head injury. Smith-Schuster, who had no history of miscondut, then taunted Burfict by standing over his body. Result: 1 game suspension, upheld on appeal.
I’m just going to go out and say it: This penalty was absolute BS. This isn’t a dirty play or even an illegal block. Using the criteria that’s explicitly stated in the NFL rule book (ironically referenced in the Burfict vs Sherman hit) this is a completely legal play. The hit is high and it’s a peelback block where Smith-Schuster is either moving parallel or towards his own end line. But Burfict isn’t defenseless because he’s pursuing the ball and the hit is from the front and not the side. This is another clear case of the NFL overreacting and governing its rules based on the situation and feel of the game and not using ITS OWN RULES THAT IT PRINTED IN THE RULEBOOK.
Just because Ryan Shazier had a devastating and unfortunate neck injury from leading with his head and Burfict appeared concussed doesn’t mean that any big hit that’s up high is illegal for the rest of the game! The fact that the NFL actually had the time to look back and review the hit, and still chose to suspend and uphold the suspension of a first time offender making a legal block is absolutely bananas.
Week 13: George Iloka vs Antonio Brown
On the game tying touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, George Iloka launched himself at Brown in a play eerily similar to the hit that Burfict had on him back in the playoffs a couple of years ago. Iloka has been fined twice for hits on defenseless players, but both of those event happened in 2015 or earlier. Result: 1 game suspension, pending appeal.
AB earned this touchdown. Gets Kirkpatrick with a slick release, then holds on despite the high hit from Iloka. pic.twitter.com/3UpUP8s6lE— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) December 5, 2017
To be completely honest, I thought this was by far the worst hit out of all of them. There’s absolutely no defending this: it’s against a defenseless receiver, it’s leading with the head and makes helmet-to-helmet contact, and it’s completely avoidable and unnecessary. But for whatever reason, it gets the same punishment as Smith-Schuster got for a legal block and three times less than Burfict got for a legal hit. Wyd NFL?!
Honestly, I could go on for another 10,000 words about the hypocrisy of the NFL, and how they claim to be all about player safety, but punish clean hits that cause injuries and don’t punish dirty hits that don’t cause injuries. But I’m sure you guys have already grown tired of reading all of this. I sure am tired of typing this. But I think you get the picture.
Bottom line is that nothing has changed in the NFL even with these so called “improvements” in the rules and independent arbiters that rule on the punishments. They still have no idea what they are doing when it comes to player discipline. It’ll only be a matter of time before all of the fans once again realize that it’s all a big lie and a front for PR, and the NFL still doesn’t care.