On third down and 5 at the Colts' 25, QB Andrew Luck took the shotgun snap and dropped back to pass. To his right, cornerback Sam Shields--aligned initially off the line and behind outside linebacker Nick Perry--blitzed into the right side of his offensive line, while Perry circled around the outside shoulder of the right tackle. The blitz crossed up the Colts' two blockers, neither of which laid a glove on Perry as he darted around the right side. Luck's three receivers were all lined up to his left, so the rookie QB never saw Perry coming on the right. Perry smashed into Luck's right arm, hand and upper chest helmet-first, jarring the ball loose and delivering a hellacious hit. The ball was recovered by the Packers at the Colts' 10, but the referees flagged Perry for "unnecessary roughness: using the crown of the helmet on a defenseless player". Fifteen yards. First down.
Let's get two things out of the way. 1) The call, as such, was correct; that is, it was consistent with the rules of 2012 football. 2) The call had a negligible impact on the outcome of the game. I'm not bellyaching about the refs costing the Packers another game, because the refs didn't. The Packers blew an eighteen-point lead and allowed Luck to lead a magical comeback. The point of this post is not to complain that Green Bay got jobbed, or even to raise that specter. The point of this post is to take a stand on the issue of the day in professional football. If you're a football fan, you know it; you've seen it over the past decade.
How can the NFL reconcile an inherently violent game with the concept of player safety? And how much of either side--violence or protection--is too much?
The rule that saved Andrew Luck a fumble was put in place before the 2011 season, after several high-profile helmet-to-helmet hits during the 2010 season drew widespread public and media criticism about player safety. It reads in part: "Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is... (2) Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body." Perry led with his forehead (forehelmet?), which is why he got flagged.
Technically, the rule did not apply to Luck. Of the eight definitions of a defenseless player, only two apply to QBs: a player "in the act of or just after throwing a pass" and "a quarterback at any time after a change of possession". Luck was holding the ball, not throwing it, and the change of possession--his fumble--occurred simultaneously with the hit. But "in a defenseless posture"--Luck was simply standing there unaware--could be construed to expand the definition... and in the heat of battle, seeing a devastating hit like that on a quarterback, it's hard to fault the ref for flagging him anyway.
The question is, though, should that hit and others like it be deemed illegal? Is the protection of that rule detrimental to the practice of sacking the QB as we know it?
Perry's hit wasn't helmet-to-helmet, it wasn't on the knee or the neck or the facemask or any other protected area. It was squarely in Luck's trunk and directly on the ball. And honestly, is standing behind five offensive linemen a defenseless place? Does simply not looking for danger and holding the ball, statically, qualify one as defenseless? Isn't it the QB's responsibility to account for rushers before they arrive? Because if simply not being prepared for a rusher is the key factor, one could easily imagine blindside hits on the QB being outlawed.
I don't know. It's just become more and more obvious over the last few years that football as it was played in the eighties, or the nineties or the early '00s, is as gone as gone can be. They're trying to make the game safer, commendably and successfully... but in so doing, they're chipping away at the defense's ability to, well, play defense! I don't believe that safety and good defense are mutually exclusive, but I do believe that Perry's hit on Luck was a hit that shouldn't have been called. Yes, I have a partisan bias, but the broader conclusion is--I believe--valid: the game is getting less entertaining and just less good. Can the NFL square entertainment value with player safety? That's the big question of the next few years.