The NFL protects defenseless players, but not if they’re on defense

The season-ending knee injury suffered by Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing in the first half of Houston's 23-17 Monday night win over the New York Jets has spun more outrage than the NFL would like. In a league culture that preaches player safety above all else (and often falls short of that ideal when on-field realities intersect), it seems incongruous at best that Roger Goodell and his game-safety minions haven't put a finer point on what happened to Cushing.

Not surprisingly, the coaches in that game had divergent viewpoints depending on their team affiliations.

"I thought it was unnecessary," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "Whether it was legal or not, all that stuff — I think it's just unnecessary to hit a defensive player when he can't see you. If a guy's coming in front of me and cuts me, he can see that and yeah, they can get away with that. But when they don't see you, I think the league needs to look at something like that."

Jets head coach Rex Ryan saw it a bit differently.

"My take when I saw it, and now I've seen TV copies and all that, is that obviously, it's an unfortunate thing. We talked about that ...

"I know the intent of Matt Slauson was not to injure Brian Cushing, without question. We wouldn't try to injure anybody, but a great player like Brian, it's really an unfortunate thing. It's obviously in their (the league's) hands, but I know the intent of our player, though."

The real question is not so much whether Jets guard Matt Slauson engaged in an illegal block when he took Cushing's knee out. The question from players in the figurative line of fire seems to be, why was Slauson's block actually legal, and why should it be? After a great hue and cry over Slauson's cut-block or chop-block (depending on which side you choose to take), the league fined Slauson $10,000 for a play that was unflagged by referee Scott Green's crew.

Common NFL knowledge would tell us that if a defensive player went below the knees in a questionable sense to an offense player at this point in time, that player might be missing almost as many games as the player whose season was ended by injury. In fact, that player might be deported to Upper Estonia.

You can debate the difference between the cut and chop to your heart's content (and here's a good place to start), but the larger point is what defensive players want to know, now more than ever:

Why doesn't the NFL give us equal protection under the law?

"My knee is just as valuable as Tom Brady's..."

"In a league that talks about taking care of defenseless players and people in defenseless positions, that's a situation right there, there's nothing you can do to defend yourself," Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen told the NFL Network on Friday in reference to Slauson's block on Cushing. "He can't get his hands down - that's an outside end cut block. For me, there's no place [for] that. You take a guy's knee, he may never be the same player after that. If we're going to talk about player safety, there needs to be equality amongst all players. My knee is just as valuable as Tom Brady's, in my eyes. There's some hits on the defensive side that could be illegal and probably save some defensive players."

However, many defensive players around the league might tell Allen that he's being a bit idealistic -- the NFL doesn't think that his knee is as valuable as Brady's, and the NFL has been saying so with its rules changes for years.

Former Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans defensive tackle Seth Payne, who contributes to Shutdown Corner on a regular basis, told me that the lack of outrage from the league on this particular play is yet another example of clear (if misguided) focus.

"I think the league has a priority on fantasy players, and quarterbacks and the receivers are the stars of this league, by and large," Payne said. "I also think their priorities are set by lawsuits, unfortunately. A lot of the rules changes  have been brought about and enforced by ... I don't want to  say that the league didn't have good intentions, but the thing that affected change was a slew of lawsuits. I'm not advocating lawsuits for low hits -- I don't agree with that at all -- but the league could be more proactive about protecting defensive players. If someone's attacking you at the back of the leg, and you're outside the tackle box, you're defenseless, and you should be protected."

That said, Payne wanted to emphasize that his issue is not with Slauson, who he said is not a dirty player in his mind. The issue is with an NFL that has a lopsided view of player safety, and Cushing's injury was an opportunity for the guys on the wrong side of the ball to open the debate. After Cushing's injury, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, Cushing's teammate at USC, tweeted about the NFL's "double standard" in protecting players who are clearly defenseless.

"For defensive players, it's lawless against you"

Future Hall of Fame end Michael Strahan agreed 100 percent. "I can't argue with what Clay's saying," Strahan told ESPN Radio on Tuesday. "If he's not involved with the play, he's so far away from the play, you don't have to do anything like that. I know the NFL loves to leave it up to the judgment of the players sometimes -- the things you do -- but you can't come close to a quarterback without a flag being thrown. When a player is defenseless and cut down like that and out for the season -- that could affect your whole career.

"I think it's garbage, and the NFL needs to do something about it. They're going to put all the offensive players in bubble wrap, and for defensive players, it's lawless against you."

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman put it right on the table when I asked him this week if there is an equal emphasis on protecting offensive and defensive players. Moreover, he said, the overcooked focus on safety on the offensive side is actually causing further injury to the other side.

"In trying to protect offensive players, they're killing defensive players," Sherman said. "You have to almost hurt yourself to avoid hitting somebody high or low. You put your foot in the ground to try and stop yourself ... it's tough. So, I don't really think they have any inkling."

"We don't go out and execute that kind of cut block."

In a weird way, it's ironic that this happened to a player on a team coached by Gary Kubiak, who worked under Mike Shanahan in Denver for years. In their Super Bowl era, the Broncos were notorious for straddling the line between legal and illegal blocks. Cutting and leg-whipping really became popular among offenses (and wildly unpopular among defenses) when line coach Bob McKittrick made it a staple with the San Francisco 49ers in the early 1980s, but Shanahan's Broncos brought it to center stage, often under the tutelage of zone blocking mastermind Alex Gibbs.

Texans left tackle Duane Brown, who has become an elite NFL player as he picks between legal and illegal in a similar system, said that direction is a key ingredient of intent.

"The way we cut, it's always going upfield," Brown said. "The way he [Cushing] got cut, the guy [Slauson] was actually coming back toward the play. He was facing the running back, coming back toward the line of scrimmage, which I don't think is legal. We don't coach that at all.

"We don't go out and execute that kind of cut block."

Indianapolis Colts veteran end Dwight Freeney put it most succinctly on Fox Sports Radio this week:

"How about taking out cut blocks? I'm sure cut blocks from offensive line, from a statistics standpoint, you can probably find that they have more injuries are caused from them than anything else."

For the Texans, the only important number is one -- that's how many irreplaceable linebackers they're now without for the rest of the season. For the NFL, the important metric is the ever-increasing number of defenders who wonder where they were when the league decided to care more about the health of its players.

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