NFL teams are afraid to use cut blocks in practice. So why are they still allowed to use them in games?
In a matter of minutes Sunday night, the highlight burned a path through NFL social media accounts.
The right knee of promising New York Giants defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux bent awkwardly, his foot jammed beneath a low block from Cincinnati Bengals tight end Thaddeus Moss. Thibodeaux crumpled and rolled on the ground after the play, drawing reasonable suspicions of a terrible outcome. Anyone associated with football has seen how this can play out, often with a cart motoring onto the field and a season prematurely ending. And as it often does in these situations, Twitter’s instantaneous echo chamber reacted accordingly to the Thibodeaux clip, framing the moment through a familiar vocabulary.
At first glance, it was understandable. The play looked terrible. Moss went very low on his block and Thibodeaux’s knee bent in a way that predictably draws a wince when viewed in slow motion. The replay was tailor made for a social media debate in this NFL era, when a significant hit on a player’s head or knees sparks an instantaneous argument either about the players involved or the legislation of violence across the league. That's exactly what happened Sunday night, as analysts and players (both current and former) sounded off in the argument.
#Giants rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux was injured on this play.
We will update you as we learn more about the injury. pic.twitter.com/1ll2mfetBs
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) August 22, 2022
Dallas Cowboys defensive star Micah Parsons tweeted, “I don’t know why cutting is still allowed in the NFL!!" The other part of the tweet featured saltier language.
That was backed up by former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, who tweeted, “It’s time to BAN THIS BLOCK. Period.”
Of course, there’s another side to the debate.
Former NFL offensive lineman T.J. Lang shot back at calls for retribution against Moss, tweeting: “For a block that happens 10x per game?"
Added free agent offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse, “This. Is. Legal. And. Definitely. Not. Dirty.”
The fallout one day later: Well, the result of the play was an MCL sprain for Thibodeaux that could keep him out at long as four weeks. Not good, but far better than the fears that his season had ended in an instant. The NFL also sided with the opinion of Lang and Newhouse, declining punishment against Moss because his hit was legal by the league’s letter of the law as it happened inside the tight end box, both Thibodeaux and Moss were facing each other when the hit occurred and Thibodeaux wasn’t defenseless, as he saw the block coming and lowered himself to deflect it.
It was a collision where one player went lower than the other on impact, exasperated by Thibodeaux’s foot appearing to get stuck under Moss as he was hit.
Of course, that won’t stop the debate about intent and whether Moss was purposely aiming for Thibodeaux’s knee on the play. Barring an admission from Moss or being able to read his mind, there’s little chance of proving his intent. It also can’t stop the debate about cut blocks in general, which tend to be largely accepted by players, though also thoroughly hated because of the degree of difficulty and potential for injury.
Controversy over the block isn’t new. In 2016, when the NFL banned the use of chop blocks, some in the league quietly questioned why cut blocks weren’t also eliminated. It made sense at the time, given that cut blocks had been long hated since being popularized by the San Francisco 49ers' zone run schemes (and later the Denver Broncos) during the 1980s and 1990s. As zone running schemes spread, so did the use of cut blocks. Particularly as teams saw the benefits of negating the size and speed of defenses with a simply executed lower-extremity block that often left players flattened.
Even with the upside of the blocks — which can be immensely helpful for offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends — teams still recognize them as dangerous to the knees and lower extremities of players. That’s why NFL teams generally never employ cut blocks in practice because it invites the possibility of serious injury.
And like most things that aren’t practiced regularly, that puts players (often young defenders) at a disadvantage during games because they face full-speed cut blocks without having sharpened their instincts on handling them. Basically, young players in the NFL learn cut blocks on Sundays. And it’s their job to retain and develop that information without the promise of any practice exposure to those same blocks.
There is some sensibility supporting the NFL considering a ban on cut blocks. First and foremost, the league should stop ignoring the red flag that’s obvious: If teams are too scared to practice cut blocks because of the fear of knee injuries, why are they still part of the game on Sundays? It stands to reason that if teams won’t practice cut blocks on their own players, then they’re creating an experience gap that can lead to injury.
Of course, the response from those who benefit most from cut blocks (often offensive linemen) is that there aren’t enough injuries to support banning them. Sure, there’s an occasional Thibodeaux. Or worse, Washington Commanders tight end Logan Thomas, who lost eight months after sustaining a season-ending knee injury due to a cut block last season. But proponents of cut blocks will say they are necessary parts of schemes and that thousands of cut blocks occur every season without incident.
Where does the NFL stand on it? Well, it sides with the data. Part of the reason horse-collar tackles and chop blocks were ultimately eliminated was because the league studied those tactics and found data that supported a ban. Effectively, what the league needs to see is enough injuries to warrant the removal. Unfortunately, that’s part of the NFL’s cold calculation when it comes to player safety. Like an auto manufacturer considering a major recall, someone has to show that there’s enough carnage to make it necessary.
That’s not a great answer when you’re a hyperventilating Giants fan who probably envisioned the season laying on the turf next to Thibodeaux on Sunday night. But that’s where the NFL sits. And Giants head coach Brian Daboll might have summed it up best when asked about the block on Thibodeaux.
“Well, that’s the rules,” Daboll said. “If they allow it, you know, we do it as well with tight ends and fullbacks going back to the line of scrimmage. So we gotta do a good job playing it. It’s a tough block, but whatever the rules are, those are the rules.”
They likely won’t be changing anytime soon, even for something universally hated and completely underpracticed.