Curran: Don't expect a fine for Welker

Curran: Don't expect a fine for Welker
January 21, 2014, 12:45 pm

No flag, no fine. That will be the conclusion NFL VP of Operations Merton Hanks comes to when he reviews the collision between Aqib Talib and Wes Welker.
 
That’s the indication I got from the league office when I reached out in the wake of Bill Belichick’s stated desire to see “the league handle the discipline.”
 
When I posed my question, I didn’t even bother asking if there would be a fine because it was a legal play. Defenders in coverage aren’t considered defenseless players either, so even if Welker had been very early in his contact with Talib (it was early but not very), the defender has no protection.
 
I’m not sure there even would have been a fine if Welker had gone to the head because -- again -- Talib doesn’t have rules protection as a defenseless player. Or if Welker had gone at Talib’s knees.
 
This is why defensive players feel that, while the bodies of receivers and quarterbacks are well protected, they are viewed as cannon fodder.
 
What I did ask was whether the NFL and the Competition Committee would consider adding some protections for defensive players on plays like this.
 
I was told by NFL spokesman Greg Aiello that “as far as the Competition Committee looking at expanding protection for defenseless players, the committee looks at that every year.”
 
My guess? There will be some “rules emphasis” enacted next year in which officials will be charged with tightening up on offensive players who are seeking to initiate contact with defensive players. An offensive player who veers into the path of a defender in coverage will draw a quick flag.
 
How many flags will we see? Not many. Officials will believe they are being asked to judge intent. Too much. They don’t have the guts. They can’t even be trusted to make a defensive holding/offensive pass interference call without throwing up their hands and flagging both guys as we saw Sunday in the third quarter.
 
Besides, as obvious as it is that Welker sought Talib’s path on Sunday, Welker’s not looking back to Peyton Manning isn’t completely damning. There is the plausible deniability Denver can put up that Welker was a secondary receiver and the timing for him on that route was to turn back after he’d cleared the middle of the field. If Demaryius Thomas had been covered, then Welker would have been targeted. Hypothetically.  
 
Picks, rubs, screens? None will be banned. Nor should they be. The defensive stress caused by crossing offensive players is a major part of NFL offenses. And NBA, NHL, lacrosse -- any sport in which the ball is passed. The danger in the NFL is that picks are set at full speed while in the NBA, you’re not supposed to move. Or even fire out a hip.
 
How often do we see full-speed collisions between DBs and pick-setting receivers? Rarely.
 
Why did it happen Sunday? I think there were factors that led to it, the first being the importance of the game and the players involved.
 
Had this been a regular-season game, Talib -- who seemed to glimpse Welker briefly -- may have gone over the pick by stepping further downfield and yielded another step in coverage to Demaryius Thomas. In the split-second where he recognized what was coming, Talib wasn’t going to be opting to step around contact. Not in the AFC Championship.
 
As for Welker, it’s been theorized that -- because of his recent concussion history -- he wouldn’t have wanted that kind of contact with Talib. He’s been in the league long enough for everyone to realize by now that he is where he is because of his toughness. He’s not going to step around, go down or shy from contact. He will follow orders and on that play, his orders were to cross with Demaryius Thomas closely. Given that Thomas looked for the ball and Welker didn’t, Welker’s job was to create a situation where the defensive back had to deal with him.
 
It was a game of chicken and by the time both players realized the other wasn’t veering, all both could do was brace for the impact.
 
Bill Belichick’s gotten a lot of heat for his Monday reaction to Welker’s hit. Especially since he addressed it without being asked. Fact is, he was asked. The first question in the postgame press conference inquired about his reaction to the play. He said he needed to see the replay.
 
As for being passionately pissed-off, do people really think he’s going to shrug and say that’s football? His best defensive player got blown up on a play that should have drawn an OPI flag in the AFC Championship. Belichick’s best receiver, Rob Gronkowski, is somewhere on a couch with a surgically repaired ACL after TJ Ward went low on Gronk on a play where Gronkowski wasn’t technically defenseless but had almost zero chance to defend himself.
 
Belichick knows he’ll be waiting a long time if he’s expecting the league office to act on this play. But, in keeping with his long-held practice of tweaking the bureaucratic monolith on Park Avenue at every opportunity, of course he tossed a dart their way. And the league office, in keeping with its disdain for Belichick, will smirk behind its hand at the notion of Belichick putting them on notice.
 
Meanwhile, Talib will miss his first Pro Bowl with a knee injury and Welker will feel badly about that. Then he’ll play in the Super Bowl.