Over just three weeks of the 2018 season, the NFL’s new rule about hitting quarterbacks has stirred up as much controversy and angst as any amount of anthem kneeling ever did. Tyrone Crawford and the Dallas Cowboys can now add themselves to the list of perplexed victims of the league’s misguided legislation.
On the Seattle Seahawks’ first offensive series yesterday, Crawford made what in past years would have been a clean, textbook hit on Russell Wilson just as the ball was released. But out came the flag, claiming that Tyrone didn’t make enough effort to avoid putting all his weight into the quarterback as he brought him down.
This flag came on a 3rd-down play with Seattle backed up on their own 12. Instead of punting, and likely giving Dallas excellent field position for their next series, the Seahawks got to continue the drive and eventually punt it from midfield.
That consequence may not sound like a big deal, but it robbed the Cowboys of their earned opportunity to get points on the board early. It changed the tone of the game early, and who knows what ripple effect that had the rest of the way.
The real issue here, though, is that that call can even be made. The NFL has finally taken QB protection too far, to the point that defensive players are left with no logical or physically possible way to do their jobs.
Before the Dallas game came on, I watched as the Packers’ Clay Matthews got flagged yet again for the same type of call. It was the second time in as many games that Matthews has been given a foul for a clean hit.
Matthews’ frustration after he saw that flag was clear. He looked disheartened, and part of me wondered if he might just walk right out of the stadium. In fact, I almost wanted him to pull a Vontae Davis just to help make the point to the league.
The NFL wants the best of both worlds. They want these players to go max effort when the rules allow and then pull it back in very specific, split-second situations. It’s more than the human mind and body can do.
You can’t ask these defenders to use everything they’ve got to get through a blocker, and then immediately rein it in once they get their hands on the quarterback.
You can’t ask them to avoid going high on the QB, and then always know when the ball has been released. They don’t have eyes in the top of their heads.
You can’t ask them to come full force on a blitz or rush and then cool their jets within a second or less. Forget mind and body, even the basic laws of inertia don’t work that way.
The NFL is asking for the impossible; a safe form of violence. That’s like asking for non-toxic poison.
I understand the league’s current global dilemma. They are looking down the barrel of rising CTE awareness, lawsuits from former players, and the diminishing participation in youth football. They’re trying to save the game from extinction, or at least from falling off the throne as America’s modern pastime.
But this rule isn’t about that. This is about trying to keep star quarterbacks healthy so that fan engagement and TV ratings don’t go down when an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady gets injured.
The NFL is in the entertainment business, so I get their concern. Quarterbacks are the lead actors of the sport. You’d be disappointed if the next Mission Impossible movie was mostly Ving Rhames.
Protecting quarterbacks, given their vulnerability at times on the field, has its place. Some of the rules make sense, even if at times they lead to frustrating penalties.
But now they’re messing with the core formula of football. If the Colonel got rid of one of his eleven herbs and spices, KFC chicken might not taste the same anymore. Coca-Cola might suddenly be worse than Pepsi (hard to imagine, I know) if they started changing the syrup.
The NFL isn’t tweaking here. They’re changing games and putting the burden on defensive players, in the heat of battle, to try to have machine-like precision.
Again, they’re asking for the impossible.
Tyrone Crawford is no Vontaze Burfict. He’s not a loose cannon. He’s one of the genuine good guys in the NFL, who does everything the right way on and off the field.
You can only imagine his frustration right now, or that of Clay Matthews and anyone else hit with one of these penalties. Imagine what some of these guys, who aren’t a Crawford or Matthews, might do if that frustration boils over.
You could hear it even in the commentary yesterday. Troy Aikman and Joe Buck were clearly disgusted by the calls, both in the Cowboys-Seahawks game and what’s been happening so far this year. This was FOX’s premier broadcast team openly bashing the NFL in a nationally televised game.
And if you think the players and commentators are frustrated, imagine how that translates to fan response.
The league is trying to avoid losing viewers from quarterback injuries. In the process, they may lose a lot more by damaging the game we love.
Playing football is an accepted risk. Players get it. Fans get it.
The NFL has to get it, and soon, before this conversation takes over in a way that past controversies haven’t. The anthem kneeling was an overblown, media-driven story that never hit the bottom line they way they wanted you to believe. None of it mattered once the ball was kicked off.
But now the game is being damaged. Football is becoming less fun; a game of rules and penalties rather than action and intensity.
If something doesn’t change, the NFL’s self-preservation efforts just might lead to its demise.