Season Opener Makes the Case for Playing Dirty

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
"My teammates knew what it was. He was on the 3-yard line. (With) a personal foul, he was on the 1 1/2-yard line, so it is what it is." - Aqib Talib on deliberate decision to commit personal foul against Philly Brown in SB50.
"We wanted to make sure it got to him, so every time he ran, we wanted to put a helmet or shoulder pad on him, and if he’s not going to slide, then we’re really going to put something on you." - Darian Stewart, when questioned about Thursday night's controversial helmet-to-helmet hits on Cam Newton.

Over the past several days, we have discussed ad nauseam the travesty which occurred on Thursday night. We have bemoaned the fact that the officials don't make calls in Cam Newton's favor. We have discussed our own disgust and the possibility of discontinuing support of the NFL as a whole. We have even tossed around the possibility of big time NFL games being rigged. What we have not done is explored the behavior we witnessed Thursday night from the perspective of the offending team.

The motivation to play outside the rules, the incentive for doing so, and the terrible precedent being set by the NFL in allowing certain teams to get away with it. Over the past few days, I have spent some time over at Mile High Report, trying to get a gauge on what Broncos fans took away from their opening game win. What I found... Well, lets just say that I was amazed at the feats of mental gymnastics fans are willing to perform to convince themselves that the "good guys" are, in fact, good.

These are the facts, and I will be sourcing the official 2016 NFL Rule Book heavily throughout this part, also I will post stills of all of the hits I reference here in the comments below, as I am not sure if they are permitted for use in the body of the article itself:

The operative rule which governs the uncalled penalties in question from Thursday night is Rule 12, which governs player conduct, specifically section 2, which covers "Personal Fouls". Articles 1-5 cover blocking fouls; clipping, "crackback" blocks, chop blocks, "peel back" blocks, and blocks below the waist. None of these apply either, so for our purposes we will be skipping ahead to Articles 6-9, which govern "Unnecessary Roughness", "Players in a Defenseless Posture", "Initiating Contact with the Crown of the Helmet", and "Roughing the Passer".

As we know, the assault on Cam's cranium began early in the 1st Quarter. The Panthers had just forced a turnover on defense, with Thomas Davis intercepting Trevor Siemian's 10th career pass. Taking over on their own 36 yard line, on 1st down Cam dropped back to pass and was forced to roll out to his left. At the 25 yard line, Denver defensive lineman Derek Wolfe goes high with a hit, ramming his shoulder forcefully into Cam's helmet just after Cam releases a pass in Kelvin Benjamin's direction.

Now, I found several references in the official NFL rules regarding what is called a "passing posture". I was led to look into this by the comments of several Broncos fans who asserted that Cam had given up protections as a QB the minute he ran out of the pocket, and that he never re-established a "passing posture", before being hit. The only problem is, the only references I could find in the official rule book regarding the issue were as follows:

ARTICLE 7. PLAYERS IN A DEFENSELESS POSTURE. It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture. (a) Players in a defenseless posture are: (1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass (passing posture).


ARTICLE 9. ROUGHING THE PASSER. Because the act of passing often puts the quarterback (or any other player attempting a pass) in a position where he is particularly vulnerable to injury, special rules against roughing the passer apply. The Referee has principal responsibility for enforcing these rules. Any physical acts against a player who is in a passing posture (i.e. before, during, or after a pass) which, in the Referee’s judgment, are unwarranted by the circumstances of the play will be called as fouls.

Now, Broncos fans are right that there is an exception in the official rules which state that a QB loses protection when rolling out of the pocket, BUT, this is an incomplete assertion, because the QB does not lose ALL protections, only some. And none of the protections they lose pertain to the plays in question.

(g) When the passer goes outside the pocket area and either continues moving with the ball (without attempting to advance the ball as a runner) or throws while on the run, he loses he protection of the one-step rule provided for in (a) above, and the protection against a low hit provided for in (e) above, but he remains covered by all the other special protections afforded to a passer in the pocket (b, c, d, and f), as well as the regular unnecessary roughness rules applicable to all player positions. If the passer stops behind the line and clearly establishes a passing posture, he will then be covered by all of the special protections for passers.

So, as the exception states, we see that the QB loses protection against the one-step clause and the low-hit clause, but retains all other protections under clauses "(b, c, d, and f)". Neither (b, d, or f) are relevant to the plays in question, as these clauses protect against stuffing the passer (driving them into the ground), clubbing the arm of the passer, and hitting a QB as he is fading backward after the pass leaves his hand. However, clause "c" states:

In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area (see also the other unnecessary roughness rules covering these subjects). A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture — for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer’s head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the passer’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or "hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.

As the picture of Derek Wolfe's hit below shows, he rammed his shoulder into Cam Newton's helmet after the ball was out, 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. So Cam was not "advancing the ball as a runner", was in a "passing posture" as defined in the rule book, and though he was outside of the tackle box, he was still covered by the special protection for QBs against being hit forcibly in the head by the tackler's "hands, arms, or other parts of the body". Now, the rest of the hits needed even less explanation as to why they should have been flag-worthy, as all of them included forcible helmet-to-helmet contact, which is specifically outlawed under Article 6, which governs "Unnecessary Roughness".

ARTICLE 6. UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS. There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to: (i) using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily.

To this assertion, I received the response that the defenders were turning their heads to the side to avoid forcible contact, and that this helmet to helmet contact was "incidental".... I doubt to anyone outside of Colorado that this needs to be addressed, but I will just say, "h'ok".

The pictures are below. You can decide for yourselves.

So with all this said, I think the case has been pretty well made that all of the 5 hits Cam took to the head, by the rules, were at the very least penalty-worthy. If they had been called, I doubt anyone could have made a good case as to why they SHOULDN'T have been.

Before moving on, I have one note regarding specifically the hit by Von Miller. Out of all of the hits in question, his is the least egregious, in my opinion, as it pertains to his actions. However, the officials still failed Cam Newton on that play. Under Article 9, Roughing the Passer:

(h) The Referee must blow the play dead as soon as the passer is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler behind the line, and the passer’s safety is in jeopardy.

Cam was wrapped up by Ware and on his way down, and the play should have been whistled dead, giving Miller the opportunity to try to divert his path to Cam, if he would have in fact done so.

So this is where we get into the subjective arguments:

"It is easy to see this in hindsight, on replay, in slow motion or on single frames, but the officials have to make these calls in real time, while watching several other things going on!"

Sure, but the ball-carrier is the central figure on the field in any given play, so I don't think an excuse can be made that the officials had any reason for not having eyes on the QB during a pass. I also know that I (and apparently thousands of other people including all of the major news outlets) noticed each of these hits during real time, as a spectator watching on TV, so I don't believe that an argument could be made that slow-motion was required to make them noticeable.

And my favorite, "Cam is like a big RB!" "Cam ducked into the contact!" "Cam was already going down, how does the defender aim for a ball carrier that is moving?!"

But lets just say, for argument's sake, that the hits were not obvious, and that Cam's head was not whipping around like a rag doll in a car accident after each of them, or that there is merit, despite the photographic evidence that shows Broncos players aiming upward, to the idea that Cam moved into the way of these hits...

Guess what: The official NFL Rulebook has advice for what you, as the official should do!

Under Article 6, Unnecessary Roughness:

Note: When in question about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official(s) should always call unnecessary roughness.

Under Article 7, Players in a Defenseless Posture:

Note: (2) A player who initiates contact against a defenseless opponent is responsible for avoiding an illegal act. This includes illegal contact that may occur during the process of attempting to dislodge the ball from an opponent. A standard of strict liability applies for any contact against a defenseless opponent, even if the opponent is an airborne player who is returning to the ground or whose body position is otherwise in motion, and irrespective of any acts by the defenseless opponent, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact.

Under Article 8, Initiating Contact with the Crown of the Helmet:

It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.

And under Article 9, Roughing the Passer:

Note: A player who initiates contact against a passer is responsible for avoiding an illegal act. This includes illegal contact that may occur during the process of attempting to dislodge the ball. A standard of strict liability applies for any contact against a passer, irrespective of any acts by the passer, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact.
Notes: (1) When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the Referee should always call roughing the passer.

In closing, I am going to get back to my original point. Going back to 2014, and the illegal high-low block orchestrated by Julius Thomas which ended Arizona Cardinals' star DL Calais Campbell's season, the Denver Broncos' recent history has been riddled with accusations of dirty tactics.

The low hit TJ Ward laid on Rob Gronkowski's knee in November, 2014:

TJ Ward's ejection from the game against the Chiefs in 2015 for striking WR Jeremy Maclin in the head.

Aqib Talib's infamous eye-poke, also in November of 2015. Talib's facemasking penalty that took Philly Brown out of the Super Bowl.

Talib also appears to have attempted to twist Kelvin Benjamin's recently healed left knee unnecessarily on a tackle later in the game Thursday night (pic in comments).

Von Miller has his own long list of questionable offenses. And he says multiple fines "won't change the way he plays".

Then we get to Darian Stewart, who also took out Rob Gronkowski with a hit to the knees in 2015, and speared Cam in the head on Thursday night's second most egregious helmet-to-helmet hit.

The bottom line: In the current NFL landscape which supposedly is making a concerted effort to focus on player safety, it has become obvious that fines and a deeply flawed in-game penalty system are not going to achieve the goal of cutting down on penalties which are putting players at risk for serious injury.

Believe it or not, it seems that most players just want to win the game, and reach the ultimate goal of winning Super Bowls.

What a novel idea!

Oh, and not to mention that Super Bowl champs tend to get PAID in free agency, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that if a star player stands between you and the prize, maybe taking them out is worth the 5-figure fine and 15 yards...

I think Aqib Talib probably said it best, when asked about his flagrant facemask penalty on Philly Brown that took the receiver out of the Super Bowl and which most people agree he should have (but wasn't) ejected for:

"One I just did on purpose, and I just had to show him. It’s probably going to be a fine, but hey, we’re world champs."

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