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Adventures in Officiating: What’s a defender supposed to do?

Doug Farrar
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You've seen it through the season — a receiver will hit the middle of the field on any kind of crossing pattern, and the quarterback will throw him right into an oncoming defender. Said defender poleaxes Mr. Receiver because there's no way he can stop quickly enough to avoid contact, and the official drops a flag and nails the defender for a personal foul because he hit a defenseless receiver. But if Mr. Quarterback throws Mr. Receiver into the defender's path, and there's no way for the defender to stop in time, what is the defender supposed to do?

This was the issue faced by Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor late in the fourth quarter of Seattle's 24-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams last Sunday. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford threw the ball just in time for tight end Lance Kendricks to catch it at full speed, and go right into Chancellor, who was arriving at full speed as well. No way for either man to stop.

Chancellor was fined last week for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, and he's going to get clipped for even more money when the league doles out punishment this week. But when you look at the play, what exactly is Chancellor (and other defenders in similar situations) supposed to do? Bradford threw the ball to Kendricks in a way that put the rookie tight end right in the line of fire. There was a similar play a few weeks ago, when San Diego Chargers safety Steve Gregory was flagged for hitting Kansas City Chiefs fullback Le'Ron McClain as Matt Cassel threw McClain right into Gregory.

According to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (and, no doubt, most of the other coaches in the league), the flag on Chancellor was tough to defend.

"He really smacked him," Carroll said on Monday. "He's breaking on the football and as the ball's coming in to the receiver, the receiver is starting to go down to get the football and there's no way he could have gotten underneath [the level of Kendricks' head].  The guy's going down as they're coming and they're both going full-speed — Kam was going faster than the receiver at the time — and he had to, at the time of impact, just throw his head out of it and hit him with his shoulder.  That wouldn't have gotten him there with the same force and the same sense of urgency in trying to make the play. He would have had to take something off the hit to do that.  He really couldn't avoid it in time.  He wasn't able to do it. 

"We're practicing stuff, we're trying to get this point across to the guys and to help them out and to keep from getting the penalties.  There are many instances in games when there really is not enough time to do anything but get there and when that happens -- the thing that I hope people understand is that there is no intent here at all. You know, 'I'm going to go launch and hit a guy head to head' — that's not what guys are doing at all.  Everyone knows what the rules are and everybody knows what the ramifications are.  It doesn't fit the game to do this and so we're trying to learn how to fit a new way to play and guys are making errors in that regard.  The intent of the rule changes, I totally stand behind and for it. We don't want anybody to get hurt ever. 

"But the practicality of it, it's not as easy as people might think when you're in a competitive mode and it's everything you can do to get to make the play you're supposed to make. You've got to get there as soon as you can and when you're accelerating, you're leaning forward and the first thing that gets there is your helmet.  That's unfortunate but that's how it goes.  So we just have to learn that instinct to try to turn — turn your head away.  We've been teaching people for years to not duck your head or turn your head, for security and safety of your neck.  So it's not something that guys have been taught otherwise to be safe on the other side of the ball — the defensive side.  It's a difficult situation and it's going to happen again unfortunately."

On Tuesday, I asked NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, a former defensive back himself, about the lines supposedly crossed by players in these instances. I wondered if the NFL is doing enough to realize that certain brands of NFL violence can't be legislated or curtailed — they're simply inevitable.

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"As far as some of these unintended hits in the secondary, I think what they're trying to do is to carve out the low-hanging fruit, where the [receiver's] completely exposed, and he could have significant damage because he's reaching for a ball and you're lining him up full speed from 20 yards away," Mayock said. "And you're going to use your forearm, shoulder, or helmet to try and hurt a guy. And I'm all in favor of protecting that player.

"The unfortunate side effect of that is something we're all just going to have to get used to, and coaches are going to have to coach to — sometimes, a receiver's own momentum [will carry him into the defender]. And as a defensive back or linebacker, you often don't know if the ball's high, low, medium — whatever. You're flying, you're trying to make a play, it's a bang-bang play, and all of a sudden, the receiver drops his head or bends at the waist. You thought you were trying to hit the guy in the stomach, and all of a sudden, it's helmet-to-helmet, and it's all your fault. That's just part of what's going to happen.

"For the most part, I'm in line with the NFL trying to protect football players; I just think we have to use some common sense as we apply it."

Carroll certainly would have agreed with those points on Monday, especially when asked how he's supposed to coach Chancellor and his other defenders regarding these rules.  "You go through the whole thing again," he said. "This is what it is, [these are] the rules, we have to do everything we can to recognize the situation and to protect yourself and the other guy as well, which means don't try as hard to make the play.  That's the problem, you know? 

"Our guys, their lives are built around competing to make things happen and get to the point where the play happens and in so doing, they're going to err sometimes by trying to do the best they can.  You have to talk them through it.  It would be the wrong thing, though, to label guys as if they're trying to do this or they don't care about the rules or they're disregarding — that's not what's going on.  It's just a function of the game that sometimes guys are going head to head and hopefully nobody gets hurt and we can avoid it.

"It's really hard for these guys to stop trying really hard.  It's really hard.  'Don't try so hard!  Hold back!'  That's everything we've ever taught them in this game and in all sports is to do your best and go as hard as you can.  So there's an inherent problem there and we're trying to work it out."

And now, there could be an additional concern, as Chancellor — who had racked up three unnecessary roughness calls before the Rams game — becomes targeted by the league and the officials in the same way that several Pittsburgh Steelers defenders (led by James Harrison and Ryan Clark) believe they have been.

"That's part of it," Carroll said. "But I think just in general for fans, they shouldn't think of guys as they're bad because it happened.  It's part of the game and it's a part that we're trying to govern differently.  Kam's sick about it.  He doesn't want that to happen.  He doesn't want to hurt our football team either or the kid across from him.  He hurt himself last week — he got hit."

That's the other aspect of the game that goes ignored — there are no flags when defenders get hurt on these plays. What if Tom Brady throws Rob Gronkowski right into the path of Eric Berry, and Berry gets hurt because he tries to get out of the way on instinct, but there isn't time? Because he's a defender, Berry will most likely cost his team 15 yards, cost himself five figures in fine money, and get his bell rung in a way he couldn't help or stop.

Does that sound fair to you?

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