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The Unnecessary Roughness Penalties For Hits on Hakeem Nicks and Jimmy Graham Were Correct

In last night’s 49-24 New Orleans’ rout of the New York Giants, there were two big head shots, one on Hakeem Nicks by Saints’ safety Isa Abdul Quddus and another on Jimmy Graham by Giants’ safety Kenny Phillips (video at the bottom). I am going to say something, that according to 95% of my twitter timeline, is going to be unpopular. They were both correctly penalized, and it’s not particularly a close question. I suspect both will be hearing from the commissioner’s office in the form of a fine because these are the exact hits that are deemed illegal.

Now, let’s set apart whether one agrees with the rules. I think it’s pretty sad that the Monday Night Crew, and particularly John Gruden, is not aware of them, and is incorrectly saying these are clean hits. They are not, per the rules.

Per the NFL Rule Book, there are several potentially applicable situations where these hits would be unnecessary roughness.

It is unnecessary roughness “if a player illegally launches into a defenseless opponent. It is an illegal launch if a player (1) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent, and (2) uses any part of his helmet to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body.” [12.2.8(j)].

It is also unnecessary roughness to hit a defenseless player with prohibited contact, which is either “forcibly hitting the defenseless players head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder” [12.2.9(b)(1)] OR “lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body. [12.2.9(b)(2)] [emphasis mine]

There is also a separate rule, that has been on the books for a while, that prohibits a player from using his helmet to “butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily [12.2.8(g)]. That one does not require the player to be “defenseless”, such as being a receiver in the act of making a catch.

For our purposes, the two plays involved receivers. A receiver is considered defenseless if he is “attempting to catch a pass, or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.” [12.2.9(2)].

In the Quddus/Nicks case, even though Quddus is launching himself upward toward Nicks, it doesn’t appear as though his second foot has left the ground, so that he would fall under the illegal launch rule. However, Nicks is clearly a defenseless receiver. Quddus leads with the crown of his helmet. It doesn’t matter if the contact of the leading helmet was first to the shoulder glancing to the helmet, or simultaneous with both. It’s a penalty. That he disengages by throwing his shoulder and throwing off Nicks may have fooled people live, but he made contact with the crown of his helmet.

See what you hit. People seem to think that it must be helmet to helmet (it was in this case, by the way, making it more dangerous), but it must be either leading with the helmet, or a hit to the defenseless player’s helmet. Not both.

In the Graham case, the rule doesn’t make the player lose defenseless status immediately on the second foot coming down. On that play, the officials called the play incomplete, though it appears the third foot is starting to come down simultaneous with the hit. It would be a pretty tortured and liberal view to say Graham had clearly become a runner or had time to avoid or ward off the contact.

The illegal launch rule is very borderline. It appeared live he had already left his feet and launched up into Graham; slowing it down puts the helmet contact virtually simultaneous with the second foot leaving the ground. However, if Graham is defenseless, it is clearly a penalty, as it is both leading with the helmet, and helmet contact on Graham.

Further, because he launches up into Graham’s head, the regular ol’ unnecessary roughness (no defenseless receiver determination required) of ramming an opponent with the top of the helmet could apply, as it was a violent hit.

I was frankly stunned that people were touting these as clean hits. I think people have become so conditioned to complain every time a flag is thrown that it’s hit the absurd the other way: there hasn’t been a valid penalty yet for most people.

Lots of writers I follow instantaneously said they were bad calls. Seem pretty clear cut to me. These are also the type of hits that are exactly what can cause serious head injuries and neck trauma. They both involved players using the crown of their helmets and, whether the launching rule applied strictly, leaving their feet while using the helmet as a weapon. It doesn’t matter that they also connected with the shoulder while earholing someone.

See what you hit, don’t use the crown, and don’t launch into an opponent with the top of your head. Use the shoulder. Aim for the ball. I know that sometimes, it happens so fast, and they aren’t going to stop entirely. And sometimes the target moves even when the defender makes an earnest effort to make a clean hit while separating the ball. I’ve seen clean ones this year, and clean ones that weren’t penalized.

These weren’t them. These were penalties. Kenny Phillips’ fine may be a little steeper one for what looked like some calculated head hunting late in the game.

[photos via @cjzero]

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