It was on display for the entire nation to see. One of the biggest continued injustices in the NFL.
With eight minutes left in the first quarter of the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers, Seattle ran a toss sweep to the left with Marshawn Lynch for two yards. On the interior, 49ers third-year nose tackle Ian Williams, playing on the right shoulder of center Max Unger, started to flow to his right to defend the run. Out of Williams’ view, Seahawks right guard J.R. Sweezy dove at Williams’ left knee and continued to roll in his legs. Williams’ left ankle was broken, and he needed season-ending surgery.
Giants defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, a 10-year veteran who also played with the Packers and Eagles, was watching the game at home. And he, once again, became enraged.
“I think just think it’s messed up,” Jenkins told TheMMQB.com. “You’ve got a guy out there busting his butt trying to play and do stuff the way he’s told. You’re in the NFL, if you’re an offensive lineman and you can’t block someone, then you shouldn’t be in the NFL. Why do you need to cut somebody from the side or take a shot like that? And when people are getting hurt and it’s their livelihoods that are in jeopardy just because someone wants to take an easy block … I don’t think that’s right. It’s out of hand and out of control. I don’t understand why those type of things are ignored while we go with everything else to protect other players.”
Every other position on the field seems to be enjoying increased protection under the rules—don’t even think about breathing on a quarterback while he’s in the act of throwing or just after—except for defensive linemen. The Williams injury comes about a month after Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams (no relation) was chasing a play, watching the ball, when 49ers guard Joe Looney put his helmet right on the knee of Williams. Luckily Williams avoided a major injury. He called the block “dirty.” In the NFL rulebook, it was called legal.
Might as well declare it open season on NFL defensive linemen.
“Yeah, it does feel like that,” Jenkins said. “I try to tell people we’re not allowed to hit the quarterbacks low when it’s our job to tackle the quarterbacks. So we have to try to bring this person down, but if he’s in the pocket there you can’t hit him low. Whereas as offensive linemen, it’s not their job to try to tackle us, but they can hit us low or do whatever.”
The NFL looked into eliminating low in-line blocks in the offseason, but decided against it. The league said a players panel and coaches deemed a rule wasn’t needed.
“We did put a proposal in with respect to peel back inside the tackle box because we saw some plays that we really thought should be eliminated,” said Falcons president Rick McKay, the competition committee chairman. “We brought active and retired players in and talked low blocks from start to finish. They were all very consistent, ‘We can play the block. We can feel it coming. It’s not a concern.’ We went through it from start to finish with them because we had put out in the survey the idea that the chop block was under consideration and I think the players and the coaches—defensive line and offensive line coaches—convinced us otherwise.
“Low blocks and cut blocking has always been a necessity based on size. It is that ability to equalize. Whether it’s the big man on the little man in space, or whether it’s the little man on the big man when he is in close quarters. That has always been a method that’s been used.”
But does that need to continue? It’s hard to think of a reason why low blocks head up—like a running back taking out a blitzing linebacker—can’t continue, while blocks from the side are eliminated. That would also likely cut down on injuries to offensive linemen that come as a result of other linemen falling on the backs of legs in the tackle box.
All injuries put a player’s career in danger. Fortunately, Ian Williams worked himself from an undrafted free agent to earn a two-year extension this offseason. Can you imagine if this injury happened while he was still working for the minimum? Still, Williams is far from set for life with his three-year, $3.76 million contract. What most don’t understand is that lower body injuries put a lineman’s career at risk—more than any other type of injury.
“If you have no lower body, you can’t even play,” said Jenkins, an undrafted player himself who has been nicked up from time to time and saw his play suffer. “You have a 300-plus pound guy in front of you. You have to take on one, two guys at a time. If you don’t have a base, if you’re not able to have that strength to hold up the line, then you’re no good. They’ll just find someone else.”
If the NFL can put provisions in to protect a quarterback from even being tackled low, there’s no reason why similar protections can’t be afforded to defensive linemen. It’s time to make blocks legal only from above the knee on up. The NFL should be in the business of protecting the livelihood of all its players, not just those that put up fantasy statistics.
As Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski nears a return after offseason back surgery, I hope he’s getting good advice. He is one of the league’s best players and, if healthy, he could go down as the best all-around tight end to play the game. Gronkowski is that good. He is still just 24 years old, with most of his career in front of him. But after two surgeries in four years, his back is a ticking time bomb if not fully healed. It’s why several teams took him off the draft board in 2010—even before the second procedure. I’m always leery about the medical decisions made on a player’s return to action, and that’s not specific to the Patriots. There’s too much conflict of interest. The team wants the player back (the Patriots are in desperate need of even viable targets), and a player always wants to play—especially someone like Gronkowski—so there aren’t many checks and balances. Already from Gronkowski we’ve seen him “play”—he was that compromised—on a badly injured ankle in the Super Bowl, and re-break his arm last season.
I don’t have a whole lot of confidence Gronkowski’s family would hold him back if he wasn’t quite ready; his father and brothers were all athletes. Agent Drew Rosenhaus has a very good relationship with Bill Belichick, and likes it that way. And Patriots team doctor Thomas Gill, who was not retained by the Red Sox after the 2011 season, recently had a grievance filed against him (and later withdrawn) by the NFLPA. ESPNBoston.com reported the union found evidence that may show Gill did not act in the best interest of former defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene (though it can’t be discounted that the grievance was just a recourse for the Patriots going after Fanene’s signing bonus). My question is this: who’s definitely looking out for Gronkowski’s best interest? That question is why I’m a proponent of players being handled by independent doctors, who solely decide when a player can return. Doubt that will ever happen, but it would be nice to have total confidence Gronkowski is receiving the best objective advice possible, because his long-term health is more important than this season.