By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Remember, if you can, a moment that took place a long, long time ago. A distant time, when rules were different and society didn’t know how to adapt to some new modifications.
That time was August. Of 2018.
You’ll recall that the football world was all in a tizzy over the new enforcement of some helmet-to-helmet rules, penalties which were being called with regularity throughout the preseason. The fans and the players and the coaches may have all been losing their minds, but dang it, the NFL wanted to stand for something. And that “something” for which they stood was “player safety.”
That pledge lasted all of three weeks. Once September rolled around, and the real games began, the enforcement of helmet-to-helmet hits — both egregious and minor — went back to normal. Which is to say, most helmet-to-helmet contact on the field did not result in a penalty being called. Only blatantly obvious instances of a player launching a helmet into another player’s head would be enough to draw a flag.
This philosophy shift within the NFL ranks was broadcast clear as day to tens of millions of Americans on Thanksgiving, thereby cementing that the league’s commitment to “player safety” was nothing but a mid-summer PR campaign — perhaps something that could be used as supporting evidence in litigation at a later date to show that the NFL took measures to limit head trauma, or something to that effect.
In any event, even those who shouted the loudest about the absurdity of the new helmet rule in August must have been screaming at their TVs on Thursday evening, when an obvious instance of helmet-to-helmet violence took place in the middle of the field, in Dallas, on Thanksgiving Day. Xavier Woods’ hit on Jordan Reed was an obvious penalty, yet no flag was thrown.
Had a penalty been correctly called, then the Redskins would have gotten a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line. Trailing by 11, the enforcement would likely not have impacted the outcome of the game. (Folks with betting slips reading “WASHINGTON +7.5” may disagree.) Instead of getting the free first down, the Redskins settled for a field goal, before they failed to recover the onside kick. They lost by eight.
But that’s really not the issue at hand here. The issue is that the NFL vowed to go out of its way to protect players’ brains, only to abruptly abandon the new measures to the point where 12 weeks into the season, clear and obvious penalties (which would have been penalties last year, the year before that, and five years ago) are being missed.
Referee Ronald Torbert was in charge for this game, though a call like that would have fallen on back judge Anthony Josselyn to make. There’s always the chance that some bodies stood between the official and the illegal hit, but one might reasonably believe that either side judge Scott Edwards or field judge Jimmy Buchanan could have seen the hit, considering it took place on the receiver, in the middle of the field. Alas, either nobody saw the hit, or nobody deemed it illegal. (College football at the very least tries to account for such instances by inviting replay into the equation when an official thinks such a hit might have occurred. If “player safety” is indeed paramount to the league, then such a measure could easily be applied in the NFL.)
Reed, a native of Connecticut, has been open about his history of concussions, stating in 2016 that he had suffered six concussions in six years. It’s unknown what the physical impact of Sunday’s hit was on Reed, but he did remain down on the turf after getting his mouthpiece knocked out, for several seconds:
He removed his helmet, and gestured to the officials in befuddlement for the lack of penalty flag:
He then hurled his helmet at the sideline in frustration:
After showing visible frustration on the sideline, Reed caught a glimpse of Buchanan and decided to chase after him to get in the ear of the official:
It was an ugly scene all around, one that was beamed into living rooms around the country to football fans casual and voracious alike. People everywhere were left to wonder a simple question: How could that hit be allowed in the NFL?
As is often the case with such NFL matters, there is no defensible answer.