20 Mar 2008
Last year in Week 14, during a scrappy NFC West battle between Seattle and Arizona, Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett appeared to dive at the legs of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who narrowly avoided the hit by leaping into the air. Dockett wasn't flagged, however, because according to referee Tony Corrente, "there is no foul when the quarterback jumps." A clearly frustrated Hasselbeck -- who missed four games in 2006 after suffering an injury from a similar type of hit -- could be heard protesting "I jumped so he wouldn't take my knee out."
You don't have to hail from the Northwest to see that Hasselbeck had a point: it seems odd to punish an agile quarterback for successfully jumping to avoid Cobra Kai-like treatment from an onrushing defender. So I e-mailed the NFL to find out if Corrente made the correct call. First, here's the actual rule the NFL provided (the italicizing is the NFL's emphasis, not mine):
"A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee. It is not a foul if the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him."
The problem with this rule, as with so many in law and life, is its ambiguity: nowhere does the rule state when the quarterback's feet must be on the ground. So I emailed the NFL once more with a few follow-up questions:
1. At what point in time does the rule regarding feet placement apply? If, for example, a passer has both feet on the ground and the rushing defender dives at his knees, and the passer then jumps in the air to avoid being hit, should the penalty be called -- because the defender began the hit when the passer had a foot on the ground -- or not (because the passer's feet weren't on the ground at the time of the hit)?
2. If the answer to (1) is that no penalty should be called, is the NFL concerned that this rule might lead to passers taking hits at or below the knee?
3. If the answer to (1) is that a penalty should be called, then should a flag have been thrown on Darnell Dockett's hit on Matt Hasselbeck (since it appears Hasselbeck was planted before Dockett dived at his legs)?
Obviously, this question is a trap. Either the rule was correctly enforced, which creates a perverse incentive for quarterbacks to take low hits they might otherwise avoid, or else Dockett should have been flagged. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFL didn't take the bait:
"1) The rule applies when the defensive contact is made, so if the QB has a foot down when the contact occurs low it is a foul, if he jumps before the contact it is no foul. One exception to this is if the QB is scrambling to avoid the tackle and does not re-establish himself as a passer he can be tackled low provided that it is not late.
2) This was changed this past off-season to provide the QB with more protection. In the past, if the defender was coming off a block and hit the QB low it was not a foul. This season even if he is coming off a block it can be called if the referee feels the defender had a reasonable opportunity to avoid the contact with the QB."
Translation: "Corrente got the call right, but we're going to ignore your question about whether this rule poses an undue risk to quarterbacks by highlighting the portion of the rule regarding getting blocked into the quarterback, even though that has nothing to do with the problem of quarterbacks who jump to avoid career-ending knee injuries."
So what should the rule actually say? Although there's always a danger that when you tweak a rule you'll make it harder to enforce, here I think the problem can be solved fairly easily by adding a single sentence to the end of the rule (in bold):
A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer, even if the initial contact is above the knee. It is not a foul if the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him. It is not a foul if the rushing defending initiated the hit at a time when the passer did not have one or both feet on the ground.
All this changes is the timing of the penalty: instead of looking at where the quarterback's legs are when the hit occurs, the referee will look at where the legs are when the hit is initiated. As a result, low hits will be flagged whether or not the quarterback jumps out of the way, just as they should be. After all, Matt Hasselbeck has a right to keep his kneecaps.
21 comments, Last at 23 Mar 2008, 11:16pm by BDC
Ben Muth explains how Tampa Bay's backup running backs trampled all over San Francisco last week.