Dirty Hits in the NFL: What Have We Seen, What Have We Learned?

Dave Siebert, M.D.@DaveMSiebertFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens waits for the start of the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on November 25, 2012 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Rules. Penalties. Fines.

It seems that no matter the precautions taken, so-called "dirty" hits continue to occur in the NFL.

The NFL rulebook clearly describes exactly what constitutes "dirty" contact.

Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 of the official rule book states that unnecessary contact on a player in a defenseless posture is punishable by, at minimum, a 15-yard penalty.

The offending player may also be disqualified from further participation.

Additionally, the NFL announced in October 2010 a policy that punishment may be added on after-the-fact, punishment that would take form as fines, and even suspension, depending on the nature of the hit and the history of the player in question.

Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens is the most recent victim of this policy.

Reed was originally suspended for one game following his hit on Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

However, following a successful appeal, Reed's punishment was reduced to a "mere" $50,000 fine.

That is a significant reduction, as Reed would have lost out on $423,529 in salary during his suspension.

It was also a reduction that was widely regarded as the correct decision. ESPN blogger Jamison Hensley even reports that the hashtag "FreeEdReed" was trending on Twitter following his initial ruling.

Does Reed's successful appeal pave the way for future such appeals? What about setting a precedent as to considering the intent of a player when a dirty hit is made?

As Hensley also writes, it is generally accepted that Reed was not trying to hit Sanders above the head.

It just happened to occur that way.

It has just happened to occur that way in the past, as well, and the claim that a player intentionally went above the shoulders when making a tackle with the purpose of causing harm is very bold and seldom deserves to be made.

That said, the nature of football makes "dirty" hits unavoidable at times.

What makes a hit on a defenseless player "dirty"?

According to the rules, the situations when a player is defenseless include:

  • Throwing or have just thrown a pass
  • Catching or have just caught a pass and have not established themselves as a runner
  • Being tackled with their forward progress stopped

If "prohibited contact" is made on a player in a defenseless position, penalties, fines and suspensions result.

"Prohibited contact" is defined as any of the following:

  • Any forceful contact to the head or neck
  • Lowering the head and using the top of the head to initiate contact
  • Contact following launching oneself at a player, defined as using both feet to spring forward

With that in mind, was Reed's hit truly "dirty"?

Let's take a closer look.

Here is the video.

Was it helmet-to-helmet contact? Absolutely.

Was Emmanuel Sanders in a defenseless posture? Maybe. A big maybe.

Could Ed Reed have done anything different? Certainly not.

After watching the slow-motion replay, it appears that Reed was going for a hard hit to Sanders' chest in an attempt to dislodge the ball after Sanders had gained control and begun to run, something all defensive players have been taught to do since the beginning of their football days.

It also appears that, if anything, Sanders was the one who lowered his head into Reed.

That is why the NFL reduced Reed's penalty.

He probably should not have been penalized at all, as one would be hard-pressed to make a valid claim that Reed was intentionally going for Sanders' head.

And that, the clause of intent, is where the helmet-to-helmet contact rule is inherently flawed.

How is it flawed?


There is no intent clause.

Rather, unnecessary contact implies foul, and foul implies fines or worse.

For instance, compare Reed's hit to the hit Joe Mays of the Denver Broncos laid on Matt Schaub back in September.


The difference here is that Mays clearly made no attempt to avoid the head, and Schaub moved in a very predictable motion for a quarterback about to throw the ball.

Rather than go for the chest, Mays sent himself flying upward into Schaub's upper body with no regard for the option of going lower.

Mays was later suspended for one game by the league—and rightly so.

It should again be emphasized that hits with the intent to cause harm are rare. Mays made the mistake of getting caught in the moment, an act for which he publicly apologized.

That said, it still happened.

And Mays could have prevented it from happening—unlike Reed.

More difficult to analyze is the hit that Golden Tate put on Sean Lee.

According to the same NFL rules mentioned above, a blindside block from the side or behind is illegal.

Tate clearly approached from the front.

Nevertheless, he also clearly led with his helmet, an illegal move resulting in a fine of $21,000 from the league.

Frankly, he is lucky he was not suspended as well, as it was obviously Tate's decision to spear Lee, not merely an unfortunate coincidence.

Whether or not he was not suspended because there is less history and precedent of dirty hits from offensive players is another discussion.

However, by the letter of the law, Tate's hit was illegal, avoidable and deserved punishment.

Lastly, let's look at the hit that caused Darrius Heyward-Bey to be hospitalized after being knocked unconscious on the field by Ryan Mundy of the Steelers.

This one is tough to judge.

In the end, Mundy was fined $21,000 by the league.

That is probably the proper level of penalty.

Once again, as in the other scenarios, there is no chance that Mundy intended to harm Heyward-Bey.

And in this case, controlling the exact nature of a midair tackle is very hard for a defensive player to do.

Mundy also did not launch off two feet as Tate did or obviously have no regard for the head as Mays did.

However, he still made helmet-to-helmet contact, and the ugly scene that resulted probably led to punishment that had a bit of an emotional component to it, as well.

So, what is to make of all this?

Ed Reed's successful appeal has likely set the needed precedent that intent should be considered when dolling out fines and suspensions., not just intent to make dirty contact.

Intent to avoid dirty contact when it is, in fact, avoidable should also be considered.

That means that Golden Tate probably should have been suspended, Joe Mays was rightfully suspended, Ryan Mundy's punishment was probably about right and Reed's initial punishment was much too severe.

Frankly, Reed's punishment should have been eliminated altogether, not just reduced.

All of that said, Reed's hit was still quite dangerous, and helmet-to-helmet contact is the most dangerous form of tackling.

It can cause concussions by causing the brain to shake within the skull.

It can also cause neck injuries similar to whiplash.

Most frightening, however, is that it can lead to fractures of the vertebrae in the spine—an injury that can lead to permanent paralysis by damaging the spinal cord.

As such, it should be avoided at all costs when it is possible to do so.

If that removes some of the shock and awe factor from the game, so be it.

Like it or not, the high awareness of concussions and brain injuries is here to stay.

No 15 seconds of fans screaming and hollering following a hit is worth a concussion, paralysis or worse.

Nevertheless, there are going to be times that blows to the helmet are unavoidable.

Quite simply, the NFL is a violent contact sport.

Unless that fact were to change, representing a fundamental shift in the basis of the game, so-called "dirty" hits will continue to occur from time to time.

The key is to punish "dirty" hits when they were avoidable or the result of neglect, not coincidence.

Or perhaps, the term "dirty" should be redefined entirely to mean "clearly avoidable or intentional unnecessary or dangerous contact."

Ed Reed would agree with that.

And, after the first 12 weeks of this season, countless others would as well.


The author of this article is a soon-to-be Family Medicine resident physician who plans to specialize in Primary Care (non-operative) Sports Medicine.


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