Late in the Browns’ 26-23 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield took a violent blow to his head from Tampa Bay safety Jordan Whitehead.
Mayfield was sliding at the end of a 35-yard first-down scramble in the fourth quarter when Whitehead hit Mayfield in the side of his helmet with the crown of his own.
Officials initially threw a flag, but picked it up, citing the fact that Mayfield was still a runner when he got hit.
Official: Mayfield ‘allowed to be hit in the head’
Shawn Hochuli made the call.
Shawn Hochuli: » The Quarterback was still a runner and therefore is allowed to be hit in the head […] «
— René Bugner (Rainbowcave) (@RNBWCV) October 22, 2018
“The quarterback was still a runner and therefore is allowed to be hit in the head,” Hochuli said. “He had yet begun his slide. There is therefore no foul.”
There’s a lot to digest there. On replay, it’s clear that Mayfield had in fact started his slide when Whitehead made the hit.
But it was a bang-bang play. Whitehead started his motion to tackle Mayfield before the slide occurred, but made contact after Mayfield slid. It speaks to the difficulty of the job of NFL officiating when the game moves as fast as it does.
Whitehead clearly led with his helmet
What isn’t difficult to discern here, though, is that Whitehead made his body a missile and dove head first at Mayfield, resulting in a big blow to his head.
That’s clearly illegal and something that should have been flagged on Sunday.
The NFL acknowledged that fact behind closed doors, according to an ESPN report late Tuesday.
Report: NFL believes one of two penalties applied
An NFL source told ESPN’s Pat McManamon that Whitehead should have been flagged and could have drawn either of two penalties on the play — unnecessary roughness for a hit to the head of a sliding player or unsportsmanlike conduct for using his helmet to hit a player.
The first penalty addresses the flag that was picked up. Officials determined that Mayfield’s slide was late, therefore he forfeited his protection.
Easy helmet rule call
But there’s no gray area with the second penalty. The NFL emphasized illegal helmet contact in the preseason.
A player who lowers his head and uses his helmet to initiate contact with any part of an opponent’s body is supposed to draw a 15-yard personal foul penalty. That’s clearly what happened in this instance.
Penalty was under fire during preseason
The league and its officials drew a lot of scrutiny for how the rule was called in the preseason, which saw the penalty flagged 51 times in two weeks. There were growing pains with the emphasis on the penalty and flags that should not have been thrown.
This was not one of those cases. A flag was thrown and picked up when Whitehead clearly committed a violation with a dangerous tackle.
Whether the flag would have impacted the game is unclear. The Browns moved the ball to the 1-yard line on the drive where they failed to score on fourth-and-goal in a game they eventually lost in overtime.
But that’s largely immaterial here. Whitehead put his and Mayfield’s health at risk and should have been penalized.
With league fines expected to come down on Friday, it may be Whitehead’s wallet that feels the pain.
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