Ian Williams was exactly three plays into his first game as a starter for the San Francisco 49ers when he got cut-blocked and crumpled to the CenturyLink turf in agony. Dirty play? In the bubble-wrap NFL of 2013, you'd think so, but no ... this was perfectly legal.
Williams was helped to the locker room, and the resulting diagnosis was not promising: he had broken an ankle and was out for the year.
Seahawks guard J.R. Sweazy blocked Williams low, his helmet driving into the back of Williams' left knee. It was a perfectly legal block, which illustrates a perfectly ridiculous problem in the NFL right now.
While the effect on Williams' season is catastrophic, and the effect on the 49ers' defensive line is serious, this injury has implications for the entire league. It's a stark reminder of the baked-in bias against defensive players, or in favor of offensive players, concerning the administration of penalties and fines.
The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin compiled some fascinating statistics along these lines. In 2012, the NFL served players with $3,016,275 in fines. Of that total, $2.415,025 went to defensive players and just $591,250 to offensive players. This year, the disparity is even more extreme: $324,000 in fines in Week 1, of which defenses took $309,000.
The reasons for the bias are obvious: offense is the marquee side of the ball; defense is a necessary but often thankless job. The NFL's fine and penalty structures protect offensive players at the expense of defensive ones. While not defending Ndamukong Suh's low block on Minnesota's John Sullivan, that play netted Suh a $100,000 fine, and Sullivan was only shaken up.
The rules on low blocks show how complicated and confusing the matter is. This is from the NFL rule book, Rule 12, Section 2, Article 5 (pay attention to the exception at the end):
Blocking Below the Waist on Kicks and Changes of Possession. Blocks below the waist are prohibited in the following situations:
(a) By players of either team after a change of possession; or
(b) By players of the kicking team after a Free Kick, Safety Kick, Fair Catch Kick, Punt, Field Goal Attempt, or Try Kick;
(c) By players of the receiving team during a down in which there is a Free Kick, Safety Kick, Fair Catch Kick, Punt, Field Goal Attempt, or Try Kick.
Exception: Immediately at the snap, players on the receiving team who are on the line of scrimmage and lined up on or inside the normal tight end position are permitted to block low during a Punt, Field Goal Attempt, or Try Kick.
Certainly, football players know the risks of playing defense. But if the NFL is going to continue to protect the offense, it shouldn't neglect the defense. Concussive and destructive forces travel in both directions across the ball.