COMMENTARY | When Bernard Pollard and Stevan Ridley collided Sunday night, there was nothing dirty or illegal about what happened, yet when both players went to the ground, it was surprising to see Ridley get up.
Running backs aren't afforded the same protection as receivers going across the middle, so the fact that Pollard hit Ridley helmet-to-helmet is irrelevant, just like the fact that Ridley lowered his head and shoulders to brace for the contact. Irrelevant to the rules, but not, of course, to Ridley or his family.
Pollard tackled the way you are supposed to and Ridley ran the way he's supposed to, yet Ridley was knocked out cold on the field in the AFC Championship game.
It was the kind of violence you could never legislate out of the game: two players doing exactly what they were taught. Pollard's history as a Patriot-killer is superfluous to the fact that he made a clean play. He's a safety and an enforcer. This is what he does.
As someone who has argued vehemently to take player safety seriously, it's hard for me to reconcile this play with the myriad other penalty-inducing plays that hardly seem as violent.
Earlier in the game, Pollard clocked Wes Welker as he attempted to make a catch on third down. The hit looked clean as Pollard seemed to hit Welker in the chest, but the play was extremely violent. Pollard was flagged because Welker didn't have a chance to protect himself.
Just a few minutes later, Dennis Pitta was leveled coming across the middle in what was as violent a collision as you'll see. He certainly had no chance to protect himself, yet there was no flag. He made the catch and secured the ball, so there's no harm to the Baltimore drive, but if we're talking about player safety, that play was much more dangerous to Pitta's health than the shot Welker took.
As I watched college basketball over the weekend, I realized there can be a remedy for these things, and it's something Jon Gruden has advocated for in the past: go to the monitor.
In college basketball, if an elbow is thrown and a foul is called, the referees will go to the video monitors and determine if a basketball play was being made and if not, then a flagrant foul should be assessed. Likewise, a flagrant call on the floor can be reviewed and lowered to a simple personal foul.
As much as I would love to get every call right, reviewing every personal foul call would likely take up too much game time for play stoppages. There would have been at least four or five potential reviews in the AFC Championship game.
But what about turnovers? These are already reviewed by the officials. Take a case like Nick Perry against Indianapolis early in the season. If you watch the play, Perry is a free rusher and absolutely demolishes Andrew Luck in the pocket. The violence of the hit was obvious and forced the referee to throw the flag.
The hit, though, caused a fumble which Green Bay recovered. The fumble doesn't have to be reviewed because the penalty negates the turnover. This is where a rule change must be made.
A blown personal foul call - and it's pretty obvious from watching the review that Perry tackled Luck in the chest and the crown of his helmet is not involved in the play - cost Green Bay a turnover.
Given that turnovers are reviewable, any personal foul call of this nature that would negate a turnover, should likewise be reviewed.
The danger, of course, is that if you do it for personal fouls, why not for other penalties like holding or pass interference? There isn't an obvious counter-argument except to say that it's imperative to get these type of personal foul calls correct on the field given the NFL's stance on fines for the corresponding plays.
In the case of Perry, the NFL insisted that the call on the field was correct, but the conflict of interest here is clear: the NFL looks bad if the referees are making bad calls. The admittance from the league that the replacement refs blew the Seattle game against Green Bay was startling because the NFL almost never admits its mistakes.
These refs are essentially conduits for fines, since nearly every personal foul like Perry's results in league punishment, even when the calls are dubious at best. This can't hold and we must remedy the situation by providing the opportunity to rectify in-game mistakes on such calls.
Players aren't fined for holding calls or pass interference calls, but they are fined for personal foul calls. That heightens the importance of getting those calls correct on the field.
Green Bay, had they been able to keep possession of the fumble they recovered, could have taken an even larger lead into halftime and perhaps it would have been too insurmountable for Indianapolis to overcome. One bad personal foul call may have cost Green Bay the game and it cost Nick Perry $15,000.
Just like the flagrant foul system in college basketball, you could also assess additional fouls based on the review. The famous ending to the playoff game between Green Bay and Arizona from the 2009 season would have ended much differently had this rule been in place.
The Aaron Rodgers fumble in overtime wasn't subject to automatic review because that rule was yet to be established, but had it been reviewed, under my proposed guidelines, the referees could see the obvious facemask penalty and reverse the fumble call.
A personal foul penalty is a personal foul penalty.
Go to the monitor and get the call right, especially if it involves a turnover. In the case of the Pollard hit, it would have been clear from the review that both players lead with their helmets and it was a legal play all the way around. Violent? Of course. Violent, but legal.
If the NFL wants to protect its players while maintaining the integrity of the game, then it's of the utmost importance that not only do they have rules to protect players, but that they're the right rules and those rules are implemented in the proper ways.
Reviews are now an accepted part of the game and the review for turnovers is as coherent a rule as the NFL has adopted in a decade. Make it even better and allow game-changing (not to mention wallet-altering) calls to be either made or reversed.
Violent hits will always be part of the game and dirty hits should never be tolerated. If we can implement a system to keep the hits we want and eliminate the ones we don't, then the league owes it to the teams, players, and fans to do it.
Peter Bukowski lives in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime
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