By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — On Thursday, in one of the single-worst games of the entire NFL season, Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso ended Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s night early with a hit that caused a concussion.
Given the way the football world responded to the hit, it seems as though many viewers believe the game is played in slow motion. The instant reaction on Twitter was visceral: Alonso was a villain. He threw an elbow! He hit him in the head! Dirty hit! He needs to be suspended!
To that crowd, I have some bad news to deliver: What Alonso did was perfectly in line with everything that makes your favorite sport function the way it does.
Here’s what happened: Flacco, as football players are trained to do, was fighting to gain every possible inch on his run. It was a third-and-10, and Flacco wanted to move the chains so his Ravens could score a touchdown to lead 20-0 before halftime.
On the other side, Alonso’s job was to keep Flacco from getting that first down, thus forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal and keep Miami in the game. This is what defensive players do on every snap.
As Flacco approached the 15-yard line and Alonso approached the 10-yard line, the two were still running at full speed. A high-impact collision was forthcoming.
Upon realizing how much pain he was about to endure, Flacco went into a slide. It was late. It was very difficult, if not impossible for Alonso to completely avoid contact at that point.
And just as Flacco went into his slide when Alonso was just two yards — two yards — away, Alonso dropped his shoulder for what he was expecting to be a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on an upright quarterback:
As for the “forearm shiver” or “flying elbow” to Flacco’s head? Nobody is skilled enough to deliver such a strike at that speed in that moment. Also, anyone who understands what can happen to bones when they collide with hard plastic helmets at full speed would surmise that a player probably wouldn’t want to initiate such contact.
And if you understand what Alonso did, you know that he dropped his shoulder to deliver a hit to Flacco’s chest while he was upright as a runner. When Flacco slid, his head dropped, thus making his head the point of contact. That happened when Alonso was just one step away from Flacco:
If Flacco is still upright, as he was when he was six feet away from a speeding Alonso, then this hit is perfectly normal:
As it turned out, the hit was delivered to and through Flacco’s head, thus creating a very ugly scene.
Alonso drew a personal foul penalty, but no flags were thrown until after the result of the play was seen. It was a similar situation to a Thursday night game four weeks prior, when Danny Trevathan knocked Davante Adams out with a hit that happens 10 times every game. That hit generally doesn’t draw a flag, but after the receiver was clearly injured, the flag flew.
In Flacco’s case, to the officials on the field, it wasn’t immediately evident that the hit was late and/or dirty. That’s how fast it happened.
To be clear, Alonso deserved the flag because he did absolutely nothing to try to avoid Flacco. Avoiding him entirely was impossible, but a defensive player has to show some effort to avoid delivering a full blow.
Alonso earned the penalty, and if he had been ejected, it would not have been a total injustice. Whatever punishment follows — whether it be a suspension or fine — is a part of it.
But to demonize Alonso for playing the violent game that you love watching, just a tint more viciously? That’s too much.
It’s easy, after seeing 100 slow-motion replays and a number of still images, to say that Alonso shouldn’t have done what he did. But a linebacker intent on delivering a hit while running at full speed simply cannot stop in an instant. There is a reality of momentum that makes it impossible.
As an experiment, stick a piece of duct tape on the floor two yards away from a wall. Stand about 50 feet away from that wall, and run full speed until you get to the piece of tape. Try to see if you can stop yourself from hitting that wall. Now imagine you have no idea if that wall is actually going to pop up and picture how difficult it would be. Now imagine you’re trying to hit a random target on that wall with your shoulder, but when you get to that piece of tape, the target is going to move, and you’re still expected to hit it with precision. It can’t be done without a heavy dose of luck. (Note: Don’t actually try this experiment, please.)
That’s what defensive players are dealing with. They’re trained from a young age to deliver violent hits. It is part of the fabric of the sport.
For some evidence, here’s what some of Flacco’s teammates who play defense said about Alonso’s hit.
Ravens safety Eric Weddle: “I saw it live. I’m not going to say it’s dirty, not dirty, whatever. It’s football. Obviously, you never want to see a teammate get hit. He was sliding, and the guy came in high. They’re trying to take that play out, but it happens. Maybe they’ll look at in in the offseason.”
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs: “The quarterback has to give himself up, and the defender has to know when to back off. I have to see it. You can’t really make an assessment from it because you have to see it on the TV copy. I just hope my quarterback is all right, and I just hope it was a clean play. I know he hit Joe in the head, but we just have to see it, and I hope my quarterback is all right.”
Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley: “You’re taught when a quarterback slides, you want to aim for the head, because when he [does] slide, your trajectory is going to be going over where his head was at the initial play … Was it clean; was it dirty? It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, our quarterback went down, and the whole team took it personally.”
Those guys didn’t vilify Alonso because they’ve been in that situation themselves. They know that it’s impossible to instantly go from 100 mph to 0 mph. They know that in a sport as fast and violent as football, these things do happen.
That seems to be a difficult pill for football fans to swallow. Given all of the advancements in the science and understanding of just how badly players’ brains can be affected by these types of hits, there’s a natural human instinct to cringe whenever hits like this one take place.
In the past, it’d be featured on ESPN’s “JACKED UP!” segment, with a whole panel of football guys cackling and hooting and hollering because Flacco looked like he didn’t know where he was. Now, it’s a hit that inspires fans to call for a suspension. That is very good progress from a brain safety standpoint.
But that’s an outside perspective. Inside the game? The difference between a “dirty cheap shot” and a standard NFL hit remains infinitesimal.
The bottom line is this: Alonso didn’t do anything to limit the damage he inflicted on Flacco. For that, his actions warranted a penalty. But to pretend like what Alonso did is vastly different from what linebackers and safeties do on every single snap in the NFL is to create a certain level of cognitive dissonance.
As a football fan, maybe you need that. There are the good guys and the bad guys, and the bad guys have to go. But with all that we’re learning about the human brain and how damaging football can be for it, we’re approaching a point where we can’t pretend as though results like this one are outside of the norm.
This is the sport that you love, albeit just a very minor shade more barbaric than usual. Eventually — if it hasn’t happened already — instead of painting a scarlet letter on anyone who crosses the razor-thin line between clean and dirty, you’ll have to reconcile this reality.