First a lengthy disclaimer. I know the NFL rules and penalties – as presently constituted – including the unnecessary roughness ones, do little if anything to discourage the Anthony Barrs and Danny Trevathans of the world from trying to injure other players. That won’t change until or unless the league establishes a progressive suspension policy along the lines I’ve previously advocated.
What has the league done lately to reduce the ever-increasing dirty hits, mostly by 300-plus pound defensive linemen or 250-plus pound linebackers? Well, in 2016, the owners approved something a little similar: players who receive two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the same game will be ejected for the remainder of the game.
Are you impressed? I am unaware of this rule ever yet being applied – not once. And if it were, that would mean removal of a portion of one game – hardly a strong incentive to change one’s behavior.
At the end of this post, I summarize, and add a bit to, my earlier suspension policy proposal.
Current Unnecessary Roughness Rule
Mike McCarthy didn’t like the hit, saying it was “totally unnecessary.” According to Yahoo Sports: “Rodgers’ reaction was angry. Fox blurred out his mouth in replays because apparently he was swearing at someone on the Vikings side, presumably Barr.” But what do the rules say?
Barr’s hit on Aaron Rodgers falls under the NFL’s unnecessary roughness rule. It is quite simple, but it also leaves broad discretion to the referees.
The concept of being a defenseless player is key to the rule as it applies to quarterbacks attempting to pass or in the follow-through motion after throwing a pass. Once a defender sees that the pass has been thrown, he must attempt to avoid hitting the quarterback.
Most agree that an informal interpretation has taken hold whereby if a defensive player takes one more step toward the quarterback after a throw is made, that indicates his momentum could not be stopped, making the act unavoidable and legal; two steps, however, and it’s considered an avoidable, unnecessary, and illegal hit.
Referees are given a split second to take into account several factors: where did the defender hit the quarterback, how forceful, violent, or rough was the hit, was there any indication the defender was trying to let up, and so on. Another factor, of key importance in the Aaron Rodgers hit, was whether the defender proceeded after the initial hit to drive the quarterback into the ground or pile on top of him with his full force and weight.
Barr not only drove Rodgers to the ground, he first held him and twisted him in such a way that all Rodgers could do to cushion the fall was put out his right hand and arm, which he instinctively did. Reasonable minds can disagree on whether Barr could have avoided or minimized the initial hit. I think the initial hit was legal.
But it wasn’t the initial hit that caused the injury, it was Barr proceeding to drive, or pin, Rodgers into the ground with all the force he could muster. There can be little argument that when he continued on and did this it was well after he knew the pass had been thrown, it was not unavoidable momentum, and it was an intentional act.
This is why I believe Barr’s tackle plainly constituted unnecessary roughness – maybe not in real time, but certainly upon review. No penalty was called by the referees. The NFL, as it did on the hit on Davante Adams just two weeks before, should review this play – though I don’t believe they have any intention of doing so.
When a player of Rodgers’ caliber is put out of the game, the league is in an ideal position to reinforce and highlight what is legal and illegal behavior. Millions of fans have watched the endless replays and have formed their own opinions about the play. If the league doesn’t review this play, it is sanctioning acts like Barr’s – pure and simple.
Will the NFL at least try to protect its marquee players – quarterbacks – from unnecessary injuries, or will it, through inaction, again emphasize that it’s open hunting season on NFL quarterbacks?
Has the NFL still not realized how negatively the game is being affected by all the injuries, which – and I don’t have to tell Packers fans – are increasing at an astonishing rate as players become bigger, faster, more muscular, and more athletic?
In particular, it is the loss of starting quarterbacks that can all but ruin a team’s season, leaving millions of fans with little to root for and with the prospect of watching an inferior product and lopsided contests.
Let’s be real here, it’s because quarterbacks are the players who most determine whether a team wins or loses, that they are the primary targets of dirty players who want to deal a maximum blow to their opponent.
Is it a coincidence that Barr did his best to put Rodgers out of the game? The Vikings and the Packers are locked in a fierce rivalry, and coming out of this game the Vikings were either going to be tied with the Packers in their division or two full games behind them. Barr is definitely Minnesota’s MVP for 2017, and the season’s not even half over.
Maybe I’ll find the time to research whether injuries that sideline quarterbacks disproportionally occur when the team on defense is in the same division, or is in competition with that opponent for making the playoffs. Could it be that quarterbacking for the Cleveland Browns is safer than doing so for the Packers?
The NFL fully knows how important the league’s premier quarterbacks are to fan interest, TV ratings, jersey sales, brand identification, and so on. Why won’t they do anything to prevent them from being intentionally targeted and carried off the field.
This is just one more way Goodell and his underlings – with an assist from the players themselves – are damaging the game we love.
Rob’s Progressive Suspension Policy
1. A player’s first career unnecessary roughness violation gets a 15-yard penalty; if any such penalty is deemed flagrant and/or unnecessary by the refs, it also results in ejection.
2. A player’s second career violation, if upheld by the league or later determined upon review by the league to be unnecessary roughness, merits an additional one-game suspension.
3. A third career violation merits a two-game suspension; a fourth, a four-game suspension; a fifth, an eight-game suspension; a sixth, a one-year suspension; a seventh permanent expulsion from the league.
By the way, not only roughing-the-passer plays, but intentional helmet-to-helmet hits, intentional hits on defenseless players to the head or neck area, and maybe a few others would also count on one’s career violation record.
This policy puts all decisions ultimately in the hands of league officials and a deliberative process, as opposed to relying on referees to make flawless split-second decisions. The NFL and the player’s union also need to acknowledge that league decisions are binding, with no resort available to our courts. Otherwise, the program will be as big as farcical as we’ve seen happen with the Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott suspensions – even if those penalties were or will be ultimately enforced.
Having these violations follow a player throughout his career is a unique and powerful disincentive to commit such fouls. Say you are a six-year veteran and you’ve compiled four such violations. You are now of less worth to your team, and of less marketable value to other teams thinking of acquiring you – as you’ll be lost for eight games upon your next violation. The progressive nature of the increasing penalties also guards against being unfairly treated by any single determination.
I know of no other sport that has a policy or system anything like this. I don’t care, because I know of no other team sport in which players are put in such jeopardy of brain damage or other career-ending disability every time they take to the field.
A proposal of this importance would need players’ approval, and would likely not be passable until the league’s current 10-year pact with the player’s union expires after the 2020 season. It would be interesting to see how the players would vote on this. Would it be defensive players versus offensive players? Would the players’ union reps try to water it down (drastically lessen the penalties) into meaninglessness? If so, would that be in the best interests of their members?
Hey Roger Goodell, can we at least get a serious discussion going about enacting truly effective incentives that would stop jerks like Barr and Trevathan from trying to disable our players?