Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Mar 2008

NFL Should Change "Sweep the Leg" Rule

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.

Posted by: Ben Riley on 20 Mar 2008

21 comments, Last at 23 Mar 2008, 11:16pm by BDC


by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 10:58am

How do you define "when a hit is initiated"? As far as that goes, most hits are 'initiated' at the snap.

by TomHat (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 11:04am

“A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting, or attempting to forcibly hit 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.”

problem fixed(?)

by RickD (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 11:18am

And this is different from every other rule in the book how? Trying and failing to commit a penalty is not a punishable offense.

by McGayTrain (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 11:30am

I'd like to see the element of intent added to this penalty. In criminal law, it's called "mens rea": a guilty mind.

Harder to enforce and subjective, yes, but fair. Of course, intent may be inferred based upon the totality of the circumstances. The context, ferocity, and necessity of the act are factors. Also, apologizing, possibly indicated by helping the quarterback off the ground, could be a factor.

The referee need not read the defender's thoughts. Erring on the side of not calling a penalty (i.e. an NFL version of presumed innocent), the referee would make findings of fact as to whether the act appeared malicious and intentional. Damage (e.g. injury) would not be a factor.

Many referees are lawyers and judges. This application of rule to fact is second nature in the legal field. It would also lead to interesting debates on FO and much hysterics in the mainstream media.

by MJK (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 12:03pm

A couple of thoughts:

When I first read the rule, I interpreted differently from Ben. I interpreted the phrase "in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground" to indicate the location of the hit, not a criterion of whether a hit qualified as a penalty. In other words, my first interpretation was that it's a penalty if (1) you hit the guy (not miss him), and (2) you hit him in a location in space that WOULD have been occupied by his knee area or below if his feet were on the ground, regardless of whether his feet were on the ground when you hit him or what part of his body you actually hit. I.e. if I dive at a QB's knees, and he jumps in the air and I contact his toes instead, then it's a penalty, because I dived at the area that his knees would have occupied if he hadn't jumped, and I made contact. But if I dive at his waist and he leaps and I hit him in the knee because his knee is now where his waist was, no penalty. Or if I dive at his knees and miss completely, no penalty.

Obviously, from their response, the NFL doesn't agree with my interpretation, but I think it makes a lot of sense and takes most of the ambiguity out, while factoring in the intent angle.

I don't see how you can get around "incentivizing the QB to take hits to the knee". You might as well say that a reciever that goes up for the ball over the middle has incentive to protect his body, because if he allows the safety to hit him viciously enough he has a good chance of drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty. Or you could argue that a QB currently has no incentive to try to duck under a high hit, because if he doesn't, he'll get a blow to the head call. Or a kicker has no incentive to sidestep a rusher after he has made his kick, because if he get's pancaked it helps the team. All of these statements are true, but (except in the kicker case) players rarely risk injury to draw a penalty, any more than batters rarely will not try to dodge a 95 mph fastball to get a free base.

And I agree with RickD that trying and failing to commit a penalty should not be punishable. How many times does a CB go gets beaten in the endzone try and fail to commit PI to stop a TD? I think Corrente got the call right, because if there is no contact, how can you call a penalty?

by MJK (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 12:05pm

Oops, that should read "...a reciever has no incentive to protect his body..."

I hate how the FO comment preview doesn's actually let you, you know, PREVIEW the comment, because it takes all paragraph breaks out and formats the lines differently and makes it impossible to read...

by Aaron (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 12:24pm

I think the problem is a little trickier than that. Hasselbeck jumped to avoid getting hit on the knee, but how do you know that he would have been?

Sometimes it's obvious, sure, but sometimes it's going to be a huge judgment call and you're going to end up with defenders getting called for penalties that may not have been penalties even if the QB hadn't moved out of the way just because it looks like it might have been.

It's too flimsy. You can't punish intent and you can't punish what might have happened if things had been different, you can only punish the actual ramifications of an act. If a QB avoids getting his knee blown out, bully for him, but there's no way to know that it would have been if he hadn't moved.

by Marc Nelson Jr. (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 12:55pm

Get rid of the rule. If it looks like the defender was trying to cripple the QB, than call unnecessary roughness. Otherwise, let it go.

For god's sake, if I wanted to see lawyers arguing, I'd watch Law & Order, not football.

by RowdyRoddyPiper (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 2:57pm

You don't happen to work for the IRS do you?

I have no idea how your proposed change works. You have to change the definition of when a hit is initiated to something other than when contact is first made. First challenge there.

You are proposing two standards for the same thing. The rule is clear that you can't hit a player below the knee if he's got at least a foot on the ground. Now you want to add in that he can't hit a jumping quarterback him below the knee if the hit would have ended up below the knee if the QB had not jumped to avoid it? What if I wasn't going to hit him below the knee when I initiated contact under the new definition but he moved into it? This almost strikes me like the classic from the simpsons where bart and lisa are walking around swinging their fists telling eachother that if you walk into it, it's your fault.

Punishment can only deter it cannot eliminate behavior. The whole purpose of the penalty is to discourage people from engaging in behavior that subjects themselves or others to risks. This works when players clearly know what risks they are meant to avoid and your correction doesn't seem to define these any more clearly than they already are.

by Herm? (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 3:58pm

The first connection I thought of when I read the proposed rule was the difference between murder and attempted murder, except in this case there is no punishment for attempted murder.
I'd also distinguish low hits into 2 categories -
1.) When the defender has a chance to hit either high or low (unevaded(?) to the quarteback) but hits low anyways.
2.) When the defender has to be low to beat a blocker and then incidentally hits the quarterback low

But mostly I just came here to say, "yeeeeaahhhh get him a bodybaaag! yeeah you did it!"
(Daniel Lorusso's gonna fight?)

by register_allocation (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 6:40pm

If the QB is able and has the opportunity to get out of the way, shouldn't he?

I mean, I'm all for making the game safe for the players, but the quarterback has to take a measure of responsibility for his own saftey.

Just make the penalty for actually connecting sufficiently severe (include fines and suspension, especially when it causes injury). Make the risk/reward ratio high enough, and tackles will stop doing it.

by James Christensen (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 6:43pm

This is just like the HBP rule and Craig Biggio in baseball...

by Independent George (not verified) :: Thu, 03/20/2008 - 11:20pm

What kind of charge is 'attempted murder' anyway? Do they give out a Nobel Prize for 'attempted chemistry'?

by Herm? (not verified) :: Fri, 03/21/2008 - 8:09am

are you insinuating that we should be giving Nobel Prizes to successful murderers?

by Tom (not verified) :: Fri, 03/21/2008 - 10:22am

Really dumb idea.

There is no "perverse incentive." Hasselback has to jump to minimize his risk of shortening his career. He is a professional athlete! Everybody expects him to jump: his team, his coaches and the defense. If he wants to take a risk and thinks a first down by penalty is any sort of incentive, get him the hell off the field. If he is not athletic enough to jump, he won't be a pro for very long, regardless of the play under discussion, so its moot.

by Fergasun (not verified) :: Fri, 03/21/2008 - 11:11am

For some reason I'm thinking of the Bears-Redskins NFLN game from last season and wondering why this rule wasn't called when both Grossman and Campbell took hits to the legs and got injured. I guess no one else brought it up because that game was viewed by 5% of the country...

by Fergasun (not verified) :: Fri, 03/21/2008 - 11:21am

Those videos are still on the NFL.com site.

Grossman Hit

Campbell Hit

Actually I think the Campbell hit was okay, but the Grossman hit clearly violates the rule.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 03/21/2008 - 1:37pm

#14 - it's a Sideshow Bob reference.

by Bengal Pete (not verified) :: Sun, 03/23/2008 - 12:01am

#3 I'm pretty sure that players can be penalised for attempting to punch or kick an opponent, even if the attempt is unsuccesful. At least that's my memory of the NCAA rulebook - the NFL may be different.

by Herm? (not verified) :: Sun, 03/23/2008 - 7:16am

#18 So now you're saying it should be legal for devious cartoon characters to intentionally take out a quarterback at the knees?

by BDC (not verified) :: Sun, 03/23/2008 - 11:16pm

To me, this really seems like it is trying to make an issue out of something where there is no actual issue. From the article:

"...nowhere does the rule state when the quarterback’s feet must be on the ground"

The rule states:
"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...."

Where is the confusion? It DOES state when the QB's feet have to be on the ground. When the hit is made. We all know what a hit is, it requires physical contact between two players. If Player A dives at the QB while his feet are on the ground, he hasn't "hit" the QB until contact occurs. If at that point his feet aren't on the ground, then it isn't against this particular rule. Now, you could argue that the rule is a bad one, but I don't see how there can be any confusion about WHAT the rule actually is.

Quite honestly, I am surprised the NFL even bothered to respond when the answer is so obvious; what completely baffles me is why you still don't understand the rule even after they did.

"Either the rule was correctly enforced, which creates a perverse incentive for quarterbacks to take low hits they might otherwise avoid..."

No, it doesn't. No QB is going to intentionally take a potentially career ending injury just to draw a flag.

"Obviously, this question is a trap."

No, it really isn't a trap. Honestly, I think it is a dumb question, but regardless, they answered it quite clearly with the interpretation that I thought would be intuitively obvious. No hit occurs until contact is made, so it is the location of the QBs feet when contact is made that matters.

"Translation: “Corrente got the call right, but we’re going to ignore your question about whether this rule poses an undue risk to quarterbacks..."

They ignored it because quite frankly it was a stupid thing to ask. I imagine they (correctly) realized you were just trying to stir up controversy where none exists. The fact is, as I already mentioned, no QB is going to intentionally take a potentially career ending hit just to get a flag. It just doesn't happen. I won't go so far as to say under no circumstances would this *never* happen, but really, is this anywhere near as big an issue as you are making it out to be? Can you name even a single instance where you saw a QB take a dangerous, illegal hit that you think he could have avoided, but took on purpose just to draw a flag?

"After all, Matt Hasselbeck has a right to keep his kneecaps."

True, he does. And he has the ability to jump, does he not? Seriously, I am all for protecting QBs and what not, but how far do you take it? At what point do we just give them all red jerseys and flags and say you can't touch them at all?
Or maybe we can play two hand touch instead?

It is all moot though. The rule is clear on what constitutes a low hit on the QB. If the ref believes that a defender is attempting to hurt a QB through "legal" means, he can always throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.