A large topic of debate in the NFL recently has been player safety. In response to the increased number of head injuries due to helmet-to-helmet contact, the league has recently started to issue fines and penalties for when such hits occur. As we saw this past Sunday during the AFC Championship game, the NFL officials have started to show some major inconsistencies when it comes to what kinds of hits constitute a penalty flag.
Although many fans and former players have expressed displeasure with the way the NFL’s new safety rules have softened the game, commissioner Roger Goodell has decided to continue instituting new rules to protect players. This decision is the commissioner’s to make and he does have plenty of reasons to justify it. However, the most frustrating part that has driven fans crazy is how inconsistently these rules have been enforced on the field.
The AFC Championship game showcased numerous helmet-to-helmet hits, some of which were flagged and some which were not. Ravens’ safety Bernard Pollard was flagged for shoulder-to-helmet contact, and linebacker Ray Lewis was flagged for helmet-to-helmet contact, both being against defenseless receivers. According to the NFL rules, these were both correct calls, but the biggest problem was the consistency with which these types of plays were called during the rest of the game.
One of the most controversial plays of the game was Jerod Mayo’s hit on Dennis Pitta. Pitta ran a quick route across the middle, caught the ball, and was completely decked by Mayo, causing Pitta’s head to snap back in what was visually an extremely viscous hit. To much surprise, no flags were thrown and after viewing the replay, it does appear that Mayo’s helmet makes contact with Pitta’s, which should constitute a flag. Additionally, Pitta was unable to protect himself after completing the catch nor clearly became a runner with possession. Because of this, Pitta is therefore defenseless receiver and cannot be hit until he becomes a runner with possession of the ball. Although Mayo led with his shoulder and some can argue that his helmet did not make contact with Pitta’s helmet, the defenseless receiver rule still comes into play and justifies a flag.
Ravens fans know this all too well.
The fact that a flag was not thrown on this play is simply puzzling. From what we’ve seen in the past, referees are supposed to error on the side of caution and throw flags when a big hit is made on a receiver, whether legal or not. A great example of this was in week 15 when Seahawks’ safety Kam Chancellor legally struck 49ers’ tight end Vernon Davis. The hit was extremely jarring and drew several flags, despite perfectly legal contact. It was simply the brutality of the hit that caused the penalty.
By this logic, a flag should have been thrown for Jerod Mayo’s hit. This again displays the league’s utter lack of consistency when officiating games. Whether fans agree with the rules or not is not the point. It’s simply that if rules are to be implemented, they should be done so in a way that makes them followed by all teams, all the time.
While it is hard to make quick judgments on such bang-bang plays, the league should simply make these sorts of hits reviewable to remove human error from the equation. Although the commissioner is all about cutting down the time of NFL games by quickening replays, you can’t allow such controversial plays to continue affecting the outcome of games.
We have seen defenses make big stops on third downs countless times this year, only to have a penalty flag thrown for a questionable hit on a defenseless receiver that keeps the drive alive for the offense. For the NFL to continue allowing such plays to have such a major effect on games is not only a disservice to the fans, but to the game itself.
Either make these rules fair, or don’t make them at all.