Was T.J. Ward’s hit on Rob Gronkowski legal? Yes. Will it be next season? We’ll see.
Ward’s hit -- which he attributed to the NFL’s vigilance against defenders contacting offensive players’ heads -- is from the same species as hits delivered to Miami’s Dustin Keller, Green Bay’s Randall Cobb and Minnesota’s Kevin Williams.
In August, after the hit on Keller, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Ray Anderson said that, if the NFL’s Competition Committee finds enough evidence “this season” that hits to the knees are “becoming a problem” the league could take action.
“We are always looking at plays that may elevate themselves, and we do include in that category hits on defenseless players,” Anderson said at the time. ”And certainly the hits to knees to players who have not had the opportunity to protect themselves or are not looking in the direction of where the hit comes from — we have had a couple hits whereby a player was hit below [or at] the knees.”
After the hit on Keller, which came in the preseason, VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said, “It is a legal hit. It’s an unfortunate result, something that the Competition Committee will continue to look at, as we do all injuries during the season. But it is a legal hit.”
Continuing, Blandino added, “Keller is considered a defenseless player — he’s a receiver attempting to catch the pass. And he’s protected in two ways. He’s protected from hits to the head or neck area, and he’s protected from hits to the body with the crown or forehead/hairline parts of the helmet. So those rules do not prohibit low contact.”
Sunday’s reaction to the hit in the Patriots locker room was varied. Brandon Spikes said those are hits he avoids making. Rob Ninkovich said he’d rather be hit high than low but lamented that high-hit legislation has made it open season on knees. Devin McCourty said that, earlier in Sunday’s game, he’d gone low on a receiver as well, citing concern over hitting high.
The conversation that’s been going on since August has tended toward the extremes. After the Keller hit, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez said he’d prefer a head shot.
When headhunting former Patriot Brandon Meriweather came back from his suspension with the Redskins for head shots he shrugged and said, “To be honest, man, you’ve just got to go low now. You’ve got to end people’s careers, you know? You’ve got to tear people’s ACLs and mess up people’s knees now. You can’t hit them high no more. You’ve just got to go low.”
Steelers safety Ryan Clark, played the “just put flags on them” card.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric on both sides that tends to the extremes -- especially from the “just put flags on them” crew -- is too simplistic and does nothing to move closer to a solution.
And the solution could be that “launching” at the knee of a defenseless player is not permitted.
A running back going armadillo on a safety or a 6-foot-6, 265-pounder with a head of steam coming at say, Ryan Clark or Brandon Meriweather? Then a dive to the thigh or below is not only the way to make the play, it’s the way to preserve health.
But look at the Cobb, Keller, Williams and Gronkowski hits. All could have been delivered to the area from the thigh to the shoulder.
Now, the chance of T.J. Ward bouncing off Gronk and the tight end continuing downfield would have risen with every inch Ward raised his target zone. But the odds of Gronkowski having his knee destroyed with the kind of hit Ward chose to deliver in that situation were off the charts.
The Gronkowski injury could tip things this offseason. Regardless of the negative rhetoric from defensive players that will accompany any low-hit legislation, the league protecting the knees of players when the players can’t protect themselves seems inevitable.