Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated
Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

A Knee-Jerk Reaction

Browns safety T.J. Ward ended Rob Gronkowski’s season with a direct shot to the knee on Sunday. Was it legal? Yes. But it shouldn’t be. What will it take for the NFL to change its rules and protect all defenseless players?

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

“If I were to hit him up high, there’s a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe.” — Browns safety T.J. Ward.

Before we get into a discussion about what I think is the root of the lingering player safety issue—enhancing the protection for all defenseless players—let’s just put this to bed: Ward and other defensive backs, like Brandon Meriweather, who explain away knee-shots on receivers by saying they fear getting fined, are not telling the truth. There are plenty of other places to tackle opponents below their heads that don’t involve ending someone’s season. The players are using it as an excuse when accused of delivering a dirty hit. It’s like saying your PED suspension happened because of a lapsed Adderall prescription: the rules are to blame, not me.

The rules are to blame. But not just the ones on the books, like Ward and others say. It’s also the rules that aren’t in place, but should be, that are responsible.

Ward knew he’d bounce off Gronkowski, so he made a legal tackle that resulted in Gronkowski tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee, ending his season and dealing a serious blow to the Patriots with the playoffs just around the corner. It’s the same thing we saw when Ravens safety Matt Elam hit Packers receiver Randall Cobb in Week 5, and when Texans safety D.J. Swearinger took down Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller in the preseason. All of them were legal. It’s time to make them illegal.

AP Photo/Steven Senne
Ward’s season-ending hit on Gronkowski in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 27-26 victory over the Browns on Sunday. (Steven Senne/AP)

I know that tackling low—especially for the 5-10, 200 pound Ward going against the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski—has been around since the game was born. Going low to make an open-field tackle is one thing, because receivers have an opportunity to make a cut or leap over the defender. But players in defenseless positions, like Gronkowski, Cobb and Keller all were, deserve to know their careers won’t be jeopardized before they can actually perform a football move.

The NFL is a brutal enough sport. It should be in the business of protecting all of its defenseless players, not just the delicate flowers who play quarterback and kick the ball. Those positions are protected from all leg shots when defenseless. Quarterbacks are actually overprotected. Consider Rule 12.2.9e: “A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee.” As we’ve seen in the NFL this season, quarterbacks are basically protected from the thigh down, and the upper chest up. That leaves about a two foot section to hit the golden boys. It’s ridiculous.

It’s time to streamline it all and make a better rule. The goal is to avoid concussions and catastrophic knee injuries on all defenseless players, including the ignored interior defensive linemen. The rule should read: “All defenseless players, including defensive linemen without an opportunity to see a low block from the side, are protected from hits to the head (not the shoulder and neck area) and direct shots to the knee.” If somebody hits Brady in the ankle, too bad; get better blockers. We’re not even talking about hits that happen all that often. It wouldn’t be that much of a change.

Sure, there would be cries of, “How am I supposed to play defense now?” just like there were when head shots were outlawed. But it took just a season for defensive backs to lower their target zone, and to realize that a good, hard chest shot can sometimes be more effective than nailing a guy in the helmet. It wouldn’t take long for defenders to understand that either they have to dive to the ground to take out a guy’s legs below the knees, or hit him right above the belt. It probably won’t prevent a few gruesome broken ankles, but given the choice between those and ACL/MCL reconstructions and dislocated knees, shouldn’t we take it?

The good news, according to NFL sources, is that the competition committee will look at this issue after the season. But I have my doubts whether any changes will be made. Coaches think there’s too much legislation in the game already, and owners won’t take up the cause of slot receivers and tight ends like they do quarterbacks who move merchandise.

But this seems to be one of the last remaining areas where injuries can be prevented—to those who don’t have an opportunity to protect themselves—so the NFL has to seriously consider it. Even if it’s hard to call during the game, leave open the chance to hit the offending players where they really feel it: their wallets. The NFL has overprotected some defenseless players; now it’s time to offer at least some protection to all of them.

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152 comments
Rouxdawg
Rouxdawg

TJ Ward & Terence Garvin should be suspended from football for LIFE!! TJ went for Gronk's knee... STRAIGHT-ON!! He WANTED to hurt him and hurt him bad... He succeeded! Can't beat 'em, take 'em out!! LOOSER!! THAT is ridiculous!! Garvin went helmet first into the punter's face... Broke his jaw and vertebra!! End of career!! SUSPEND GARVIN & WARD FOR LIFE!!!

RickJohnston
RickJohnston

What a ridiculous article.  It's people like you who are destroying the game of football.  People get hurt playing football.  It's a dangerous game.  You cease being "defenseless" when you strap a helmet on.  Get over it or quit watching.

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

One of the amusing fictions being peddled by some defending T.J. Ward’s low hit on Gronkowski is this notion that he is some kind of beast—perhaps like an 8-foot, 400-pound Sasquatch, I suppose.At roughly 6’6” and 265lbs, “Gronk” a big guy who has been tackled repeatedly—and effectively—throughout his career WITHOUT being hit low.Thus, Ward’s low hit was unnecessary.

NFL players are a fraternity—a brotherhood of the game’s best.Most have each other’s back.Most police themselves effectively by adhering to certain unwritten rules.Most would never consider “going low” on an opposing player because of the significant likelihood of ending that player’s season or career.Most, but apparently not all.

GunnardJohnston
GunnardJohnston

There is absolutely no reason why vulnerable players cannot be protected from season-ending -- possibly career-ending -- injuries to the head or the knee.   Hitting above the shoulder pads and below the thigh should be outlawed, plain and simple.   There is no reason why a player should be subjected to hits to the head or the knee.   It is shameful that this happens as often as it does, changing the destiny of a team in one second of devastating injury.   NO EXCUSE for this!!!!   Change the rules NOW!!!

JPSmall
JPSmall

"There are plenty of other places to tackle opponents below their heads that don’t involve ending someone’s season". Really? This dude has clearly never tried hitting a moving target while moving himself and trying to ensure that target stays down once hit. Few defensive players want to end someone's career, but if you limit their target zone to below the numbers, knees will get blown, simple as that. And as Tony Gonzalez recently said, he'd rather deal with a concussion later in life than to have his career cut short by a blown knee. I hate the QB protection rules (breathe on me with your fish breath and you'll be fined) but I understand them. It's a QB-driven league. But if you want to protect defenseless receivers,  QB's have to throw fewer  hospital passes. That throw to Gronk was high and to the outside, forcing him to leap and rendering him defenseless. Should defenses take into account how accurate the QB will be before they decide where to hit someone? Clearly written by someone who has never played defense competitively.

MatthiasGiese
MatthiasGiese

As I am constantly saying, the NFl is becoming unwatchable, due to overprotection, stupid rules, and dumb decisions from referees in over their heads. I am quickly losing interest.

mwanko73
mwanko73

Every game is going to turn into the Pro Bowl, and we know how popular the Pro Bowl has been. Don't blitz, matador tackling and arena league scoring. Defense is merely window dressing. I can sympathize with their frustration. They are being turned into the Washington Generals to every offenses Harlem Globetrotters.

PurityPrydain
PurityPrydain

Gronk is not "defenseless" in those series of photos.  No offensive player should be considered "defenseless" when they run out into a pattern.  They know they could get hit and they understand that risk.  It's a silly term to use.  Why don't we just cut to the chase and turn it into flag football.  I'll be watching the UFC where MEN know they're going to get hit and possibly injured (badly even) and still get into that ring knowing the risk.

wherron23
wherron23

THERE ARE PLENTY OF OTHER PLACES TO TACKLE A MONSTER TE LIKE GRONK .... NOT A LOT OF DBS WILL GET BY TRYING TO TACKLE GUYS LIKE HIM BY THE MIDSECTION  ... LETS BE REAL EITHER HIT HIGH AND BREAK UP THE PASS, WHICH YOU CAN NO LONGER DO OR HIT LOW AND MAKE SURE HE GOES DOWN AND DOESNT RUN YOU OVER


obgod3
obgod3

I think a lot of the comments here are missing a few things.  Although some folks had some very good comments.  First fundamentals of tackling has all gone by the way side.  Players rarely tackle anymore, instead the launch themselves like missiles.  Say what you want but doing that increases the risk if injury exponentially.  I dont think Ward intentionally went in to hurt Gronk, although I believe there are players out there that do, Mr. Pollard for one.  But he did have options, just as gronk was prepared so was Ward and Ward choose to go to the knee, he clearly had time to hit someplace else and he had the opportunity as a fast man to wrap Gronk up, granted he might have given up a few yards. Dont tell me he cant take him down another way, old school players did it all the time.


Something else, the NFL is a business and they dont care if a few folks don't like to watch it anymore, it is all about money.  So what you all have to realize is that when the stars of the league dont play the NFL looses revenue, it is a proven fact.  Attendance, sports wear, and more importantly TV Commercials.  So when you think of NFL think of it as a business, by the way the "stars" get paid a lot and owners dont want them sidelined.  It is the same for any business and the business will protect their product, it inst about one team or one player.


Finally, whew, the NFL gets sued everyday, some issues are public and some are not and many if not most are due to long standing health problems that are from injuries sustained during play.  The NFL has to protect themselves, blame RG all you want but the fact is it is the leadership of previous NFL generations that have caused this problem by not previously protecting the players.  When players and unions stop sueing then the NFL will stop making new rules, and if folks dont like then dont watch but thats life.  In our society of everyone worried about everyone else I suspect eventually all those do gooders out there will want to ban the NFL anyway because it gets people hurt.


Folks dont realize we are looking at social problem here.

BobMigliaccio
BobMigliaccio

When I saw the play, it looked like he hit the knee with his shoulder. Hits up high are illegal. Now some are calling for lower hits to be illegal. If a receiver leaps for the ball, the defensive player aims for the chest, and the receiver ducks his head, it is a penalty. Maybe change the rule to if a defensive player is within six feet of a defenseless receiver, the play is dead at the spot, no tackle necessary. Hey, it makes as much sense as what has been written so far.

Psupe
Psupe

If you implement additional rules and hitting limitations, then maybe the idea of pop-warner weight controlled positions should be evaluated.  A TE cannot be larger than 230 lbs., running back 215 lbs.,  sounds harsh, but appears to be the safest for all players if you have to hit between the belt and the numbers.

Tbone5150
Tbone5150

The more rules you implement, the more likely that a ref will get it wrong because of the speed of the action.

SP
SP

Any of these hits... look at two players.. ONE is super talented and makes plays... the other ...(who's that again?) is unknown and wants to end the season or career of the first super talented player.....  Is this not DIRTY?

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

gronk had time to prepare for the hit- looked like he didnt act quickly enough.  no need to change the game even further after yet another....pat ...player..... gets...... hurt.  jesus.    (see tuck rule, see hitting a qb below the waist and now this)   

Ionart
Ionart

Couple of issues with this flawed article.

First, Gronk was not defenseless as you state...look at your own pictures, he made the catch, tucked the ball, and is eyeballing Ward the entire time. He had enough time to "make a football move" or it would have been ruled an incomplete catch...remember he fumbled the ball upon hitting the ground. It was ruled a catch and the ground can't cause a fumble of a completed catch.

So, just target the chest right...there were no less than two penalties on Sunday when a DB hit a receiver shoulder to shoulder...they way they've been instructed to, but because the hits caused the head to snap the refs threw flags for unnecessary roughness or defenseless receivers...too sensitive to not make the call based on what happened, they had to call on what they think happened when the head snapped.

It probable won't stop a few gruesome broken ankles...shouldn't we take it?? Who the heck is we? Are you serious, you want to trade one type of season ending injury for another? Great solution! This rule would only be made more ridiculous if you also included the "it is illegal for a receiver to try and jump over a low tackle attempt" so it is equal to both sides of the ball.

Yes, it is a dangerous game and there should be precautions implemented where they can be but what you propose would, in effect, turn this game into touch football.

douggould1
douggould1

GregABedard RE: Gronk. Also noticing a problem with the way players are tackling in today's NFL. On the Gronkowski tackle – Ward targets the player with his head down. When a player approaches another player in this way he puts himself and his target in greater jeopardy.

BY
BY

I see this as unfortunate but inevitable at times. Do you want to make another rule in a game with too many already? These are large fast men. If you really want to make the game safer get rid of PEDs. The writer does not worry about the neck/head injuries that 260 lb men running full speed inflict on 200 lb men when the 200 lb guy tackles up high. In the photos (I have not seen this at game speed) Gronk looks at Ward. Usually the ball carrier will get both feet off the ground to avoid precisely what happened to Gronk.

JohnFerguson
JohnFerguson

Let the defenders defend against the pass before the catch. Go back to the old pass defense rules. The attacks on the quarterbacks and these hits on receivers have been emphasized because the defenders can't challenge the reception without getting a defensive pass interference penalty.

SportPage
SportPage

If the league expands the "no tackles to the head or knees Brady rule" to everyone, it will only be a matter of time until Belichick hires a fleet of "small people" for runners and receivers, and every time they are tackled it will be a penalty.

BTomiegun
BTomiegun

There are a lot of jobs more dangerous in first world countries than playing in the NFL and the workforce is not compensated nearly as well. I don't like injuries to star players but the danger is why they get paid the big bucks. Might seem crass but its true.

PDW1
PDW1

How come when a LB or Safety tackles a RB low, who is coming through the line or off tackle, we don't see these knee injuries? To me it's simple, the LB and Safety don't have the time to be running full speed and "launch" themselves like a freaking missile.  I know it makes a DB job tough, but outlaw "launching" downfield, say beyond 10 yards.  The NHL got rid of the launching to check because they knew when a guy leaves his feet he can inflict a whole heck of a lot more damage then if his feet are on the ground.  All the "blow-up" hits the NFL has over the years on WRs going over the middle (whether it be on heads, knees, backs) is when the DB launches themselves.  You can still tackle low as long as you are not launching through the like a missile...much less change to do career ending damage.      

Suhly
Suhly

I posted this in response to a comment from Bill F below but thought it might be worth posting it up top and see what others think -


I think they should consider weight and size limits. Just like Pop Warner. Us big kids (150 .lbs +) never got to play (talking 1970's here) - maybe it is different today in PW but the principle is the same. Bigger, faster, stronger = more violent collisions, more mass equals more injuries. Not to mention the players health from having to "bulk up" to "playing weight" every year.


A lot of these guys struggle with weight and health issues after they leave the NFL because of the habits they developed while playing - eating, PEDs (let's not pretend anyone can get to that size without "some" assistance), etc.. So maybe not requiring a guy to gain 30-50+ pounds minimum to play a position (OL, DL especially) would actually have long term benefits as well as helping to minimize some of the injuries. Or at least the severity of these injuries.


My 2 cents.


fiasco56
fiasco56

Truth is there is no good answer. Fine the quarterbacks whose throws put their receivers in dangerous positions?  Too extreme?  Maybe to encourage midsection hitting, set size limits on players in the receiving and defensive backfield positions? When you're a 210 lb cornerback, how do you approach tackling a 250 lb or larger tight end, and tight ends in particular are getting larger and larger?  How about, once and for all, eliminating artificial turf altogether (look at Gronk's planted foot above) and further reducing cleat size?  There's be a lot of slipping and sliding, but it would be safer.

wherron23
wherron23

@GunnardJohnston dude you need to just go watch soccer ..... sounds more like your sport .... and wether you've ever seen a game or not you'll probably understand more about the sport then you do football.......because your clearly not getting it nor do you realize what its like for a player playing D

gaetanomonopoli03@verizon.net
gaetanomonopoli03@verizon.net

@MatthiasGiese    I agree ,been watching the NFL for 45 years and it's   getting real hard , way to many flags. You mine as well play touch football with the QB. I believe the NFL is in big trouble if they don't fix many problems that seem to be popping up.  Go back and watch the decade of the 1970's  that was great hard nose football. You watch , soon all the D-lineman are just going to have to lay one hand on the QB and the play will be blown dead.

Rouxdawg
Rouxdawg

@PurityPrydain No-one said he was defenseless. However, TJ Ward intentionally went for his knee with ONE thing in mind... Take him OUT, not down. That mindset should be punished! Football players make millions yes, but they can only play for so many years & intentionally taking someone's bread & butter from them by being a jacka$$, NOT OK!!

nyjetsfan08
nyjetsfan08

@obgod3

I totally agree with you, regarding how old time players didn't have to launch themselves like missiles at a player's knees. Now, to play devil's advocate, players knew even back then going for the legs was a career killer and head shots were not thought of anything grave. Like you said, the defender was the fast man, running almost perpendicular or slanted to Gronk. He could have wrapped him up or went for the ankles, instead of using himself as a kamikaze directed towards his knees. A 200 lb man sprinting perpendicular to a 250 lb man (who is also sprinting), should have no problem executing a clean wrap. If the defender was coming up behind him and had yet to build up speed, I could see how a clean wrap could be a challenge on a specimen like Gronk. Just for the ankle pick pick then. Tackling in the NFL has been spotty for some time now, either because the players picked up bad habits, or they don't actively drill it in practice, or its the coaches, or they spend most of the time drilling getting the ball and leave little or no room for a fundamental football skill like tackling.

SP
SP

Intent is more important than rules.....  Any governing body can only set some rules......  But the players need to play the sport a certain way which is in line with the spirit of the sport......  TJ Ward(and other dirty players) should know that.

ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

@SP you know for a fact that he injured gronkowski on purpose?

Tbone5150
Tbone5150

You might want to check out TJ Wards stats before you post like that.

shanefalco
shanefalco

How does the tuck rule play into this? The tuck rule was actually a rule and it was called correctly. The same year in week 2 the Jets benefited from the tuck rule against the Patriots. They have since eliminated the rule.

obgod3
obgod3

it isnt the Pats, but lets look at this way, Mr. Ward had plenty of time to figure out where to hit Gronk rather than launching at his knee for which he definitely targeted. FYI the Qb rule started with Carson Palmer the year before Brady.

Tbone5150
Tbone5150

Is there a really like button? I never thought about those other rules that were changed because of pretty boy Tommy Bundchen

Rouxdawg
Rouxdawg

@Ionart Yes, Gronk saw Ward, but not even he knew that this guy had one intention and one intention only... TO TAKE GRONK OUT!! He intentionally went for his knee!! He looked at it... he went for it. There was nothing "accidental" about this play, it was ruthless & brutal & Ward should be suspended for life!!!

PDW1
PDW1

@Ionart implement a "charging" rule like they do in NHL....for example a defender downfield (say beyond 10 yards) can not LAUNCH themselves....otherwise as long as feet are on ground and not launching like missile, low hits are fine.   NFL needs to protect their products...when more starts go down liek this and it will happen, maybe they look at it when a Megatron, Graham, Dez, Gordon, do down....because the best TEs/WRs are usually the big fast guys going over the middle and this will happen again

oldguy68
oldguy68

I agree. The rule changes were to get more passing which would generate more popularity, but it sure handcuffed defensive backs and IMO degraded the game

BTomiegun
BTomiegun

If we change the game fundamentally then lets make a corresponding change to ticket and merchandise pricing. I am not complaining about the prices, I just don't want to pay the same price for what might become an inferior product.

BTomiegun
BTomiegun

@PDW1 NHL didn't outlaw "launching". It is called charging and has long been a penalty. I agree with the rest though.

SportPage
SportPage

@fiasco56 Real grass fields would be beneficial, I wish turf was never introduced.

JPSmall
JPSmall

@nyjetsfan08 @obgod3 Wow, you guys have short memories. "Old school football" included clotheslining, slapping offensive players in the head so hard they couldn't hear the next play and the occasional drop kick. Not to mention high and low launching. 

SP
SP

All I know is....  if a person knows he is going to seriously hurt somebody ...  he will not even try... if he did try knowing the consequences...  he is DIRTY to say the least.

Rouxdawg
Rouxdawg

@Tbone5150 TJ Wards is a LOOSER that can't tackle other players legally! He intentionally tried to take Gronk out & did! He should be suspended for life!! You ruin another player's life like that, you don't deserve to be in the game! LOOSER!

JPSmall
JPSmall

@obgod3 By plenty of time, do you mean less than a second running at full speed? 

obgod3
obgod3

the low hit rule on QB's was not changed until after the brady injury but the league had already been talking about it when Palmer got it during the post season prior to Brady, the league didnt think it was a big issue as it didnt happen often but once two of the biggest starts in the NFL went out in a matter of 6-7months they changed that but only after the entire season. The reason you cant touch a WR is because Polian lobbied the NFL when with Indy but no one ever wants to talk about that. 

Mattfobrien
Mattfobrien

@PDW1 @Ionart Stop. Think. You want to encourage defenders to maintain their feet on the ground while running full speed and tackling below the waist. Congrats, you just told players to lower their head into contact. You just traded broken knees for broken necks. While it sucked watching Gronk get carted off, I'd prefer it to see them zipping up a body bag on the field because someone died trying o duck their head into a guy who outweighs them by 60 lbs. and runs a 4.5 40.

Ionart
Ionart

Only works if you also say a receiver can't jump for a ball. The refs have a hard enough time making the calls the league has implemented, now you want them to determine when a defender is launching themselves versus hitting a player and in the process leaving their feet. It's not only a ridiculous proposal it wold be nearly impossible to enforce consistently...leading to more complaints from teams, fans, and media.

Every time you fix one thing, you will break two others.

KelPradovich
KelPradovich

@SP so... if a person does not know he is going to seriously hurt someone... he will try... and he did try thinking his trying would not seriously injure.  .. and yet he injures. ... ... WTF??? You first assume that all who injure intend to injure. IDIOT.

Ionart
Ionart

Umm, read my post again...not interested in making them keep their feet.

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