Two hits—one deemed legal, the other illegal—helped define the second week of the NFL's 2013 preseason while also reintroducing the league's continued effort to improve player safety.
Last Thursday, during the third quarter of the Chicago Bears' win over the San Diego Chargers, rookie linebacker Jon Bostic blew up an attempted bubble screen to Chargers receiver Mike Willie with arguably the most violent and forceful hit of the preseason.
The public reaction to the hit was almost universally positive. Bostic's blow received rave reviews—it looked like a classic highlight-reel smackdown—and most considered it completely clean. The NFL disagreed.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the NFL fined Bostic $21,000 after reviewing the play.
A few days after Bostic's hit, Houston Texans rookie safety D.J. Swearinger cut down Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller with a low tackle. The hit destroyed Keller's knee, dislocating it and tearing three different ligaments. He will miss the entire 2013 season.
While some players, including Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons—via Jim Corbett of USA Today—deemed the hit dirty and malicious, the NFL did not. Swearinger's tackle was considered legal and required no action from the league office.
Casual fans of the NFL might have trouble rationalizing the two rulings.
While Bostic's hit appeared to be a perfect form tackle that caused no injury (at least in real time), Swearinger clearly went low at a receiver's knees and ended his season. Some may wonder why the NFL, which continually pushes player safety, wouldn't have just flipped the two fines, giving Bostic a pass and Swearinger a slap on the wrist.
The NFL rulebook provides clear answers, even if the explanations might not sit well for a percentage of fans.
NFL Network brought on Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, to help explain the rulings on each of the hits from last week. You can view his comments in the video below:
According to Blandino, the NFL rulebook is very clear on the legality of each hit. Below, we will run down each play and determine what the NFL's explanations mean for the upcoming season.
Legal: D.J. Swearinger's Low Hit on Dustin Keller
"Keller is considered a defenseless player—he’s a receiver attempting to catch the pass," Blandino said, via the NFL Network video. "And he’s protected in two ways. He’s protected from hits to the head or neck area and to hits to the body with the crown or forehead/hairline parts of the helmet. So those rules do not prohibit low contact. ... It is a legal hit."
Keller dislocated his knee and tore his ACL, MCL and PCL; he's out for the season.
What It Means
There has been outrage from NFL players about Swearinger's hit, but it's difficult to understand why. Sure, the chop-down will unfortunately cost Keller his entire 2013 season, and it's possible that his catastrophic injury will alter the course of his remaining career.
However, how many times a season does this exact same tackle attempt happen? Hundreds? Smaller defensive backs go low on bigger running backs all the time. Same for offensive linemen against stronger, faster defensive linemen. Going for the legs of an opponent has always been one way for a player to gain an advantage he otherwise wouldn't possess.
Overall, Gonzalez and the rest of the NFL wouldn't have blinked an eye at Swearinger's tackle had Keller not been seriously injured.
Ball-carriers in general should probably start getting used to lower hits; as the NFL continues to crack down on high hits to the head and neck area, defenders will continue lowering their strike zone. For now, a cut-down tackle like Swearinger's is a legal way for defensive players to accomplish their job.
However, Blandino did reiterate that the NFL's competition committee will look at the legality of the hit in the future. Stay tuned.
Illegal: Jon Bostic's Violent Hit on Mike Willie
"The Bostic hit is illegal because he used the crown of his helmet to deliver a forcible blow to the body of the receiver," Blandino said. "For this hit to be legal, he has to get the helmet to the side and use the shoulder to deliver the blow or hit the receiver with his head up. Using the crown to deliver the blow to the body, that is a foul when you're talking about a hit on a defenseless receiver."
"These are the two techniques we're trying to get back into the game," Blandino added.
Incomplete pass, $21,000 fine for Bostic.
What It Means
Count the Bostic fine as just another step in the NFL's unwavering commitment to improve player safety, especially head safety. You could look at a dozen replays of the hit and struggle to find any tangible fault for what Bostic did. In fact, such a hit has been a celebrated part of the game for decades.
But Bostic does lead and strike with the crown of his helmet, which is in violation of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 of the NFL rule book. Prohibited acts against a defenseless receiver include "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."
The NFL doesn't care how much fans love these kind of collisions; when reviewing the play, the league is almost always going to take the side of caution, and levied fines will reflect that. If a player delivers a big hit with the crown of his helmet this season, it's going to cost him a sizable chunk of his next paycheck.