Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was fined $40,000 on Monday for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, but there are many who feel that Robinson got off a little light. As a repeat offender, Robinson is supposed to be subject to harsher penalties per the league's own edict, but that's not really what happened. In Week 6 of the 2010 season, Robinson was fined $50,000 for a huge hit on Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson; it was a play in which Robinson was also concussed.
Right after the Sunday night game, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said that he felt the Robinson hit was clean, and said "that's the way we teach it." On Monday, Smith said that his opinion hadn't changed. And that concept adds a different level of complexity to the player safety argument. If Smith meant to say that the Falcons are teaching helmet-to-helmet contact, he can expect his own call from the league, but I doubt that anyone smart enough to be an NFL head coach would be dumb enough to say that he and his staff teach and endorse hits that put opponents in the line of fire.
Smith didn't represent himself in a way that would make people understand, but in a way, he does have a larger point. NFL defenders are taught to converge on receivers in zone pockets (the Falcons play a lot of zone in the 4-3 base defense) as the highest possible speed while still maintaining the control required to avoid whiffing on a tackle. Where Smith clearly erred is in appearing not to care about the helmet-to-helmet nature of the hit. And if the NFL has coaches believing and teaching that these kinds of hits are clean and legal, that's a much larger problem for the league to face.
For those who haven't seen the hit, here's the video.
According to the website of the NFL's own communications arm, Robinson was specifically fined for violating Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 (a) (2) of the NFL Official Playing Rules, which states:
It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
(a) Players in a defenseless posture are…(2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner.
The NFL's statement goes on to say that the $40,000 fine is the minimum that can be given to a player previously fined, and points out that Robinson was fined $25,000 for the Jackson hit. That's not the full story, though — Robinson was originally fined $50,000, and the punishment was cut in half upon appeal. So, in a sense, the NFL let Robinson off with a lighter initial fine for a repeat offense. That doesn't really line up with the "get tougher" policies of a league supposedly bent on improving player safety.
As we wrote on Monday, the Maclin and Jackson hits also reflect one unfortunate reality of NFL football — given the quickness of the game and certain schematic issues, a quarterback who leads his receiver into a zone pocket with defenders converging on him at full speed is essentially betting on physics and hoping against hope that the guy closing in on his receiver in the way he has been taught will be able to pull up in time.
It's not really a safe bet, no matter how many rules the NFL puts in place.
Robinson can take another appeal to NFL appeals officers Art Shell and Ted Cottrell. If the NFL wants to save face and try to reconcile its policies on player safety and what it enforced to facilitate a revolution in thought, there's a high likelihood that Robinson will be paying the full amount of the fine this time.
What the NFL can't yet do is to change the game in a way that doesn't make what Mike Smith said correct. And until that happens, the divide between perception and reality will continue to exist.
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