By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The idea behind the NFL’s institution of a rule forbidding violent hits to the head and neck of defenseless receivers was to promote player safety and limit the opportunities for defensive players to “light up” vulnerable players. The one way to discourage such hits is to issue significant penalties when they occur.
That’s why the situation in the Rams-Buccaneers playoff game on Sunday exposed an odd loophole that allowed a violent hit to the head of a defenseless receiver to essentially go unpunished.
To be clear, the officials on the field called the penalty properly. But that’s the precise issue at hand.
The incident came early in the fourth quarter, with the Rams leading the Buccaneers 27-13. The Bucs were threatening to make it a one-possession game when Tom Brady threw toward Evans, who was running up the left sideline on a fourth-and-14 from the Rams’ 36-yard line.
The pass fell incomplete, thanks to Jalen Ramsey’s tight coverage, but safety Eric Weddle came in late to deliver a helmet-to-helmet hit on Evans.
This was, by rule, a personal foul for unnecessary roughness. It’s the exact hit that the NFL sought to eliminate by adding the protection for defenseless receivers. It was flagged as such.
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But because of the football hitting the turf just before the hit was delivered, the penalty was technically a dead ball foul. Once again, it was ruled as such. And the impact of the punishment was significantly mitigated.
Instead of the Buccaneers being set up with a first-and-10 at the Rams’ 21-yard line, the Rams took over on the turnover on downs, at their own 22-yard line. And because of the way penalty yardage is enforced on a dead ball foul, they didn’t even have to gain more than the customary 10 yards to move the chains on that possession.
From that perspective, the damage for Tampa Bay was minimized, as Matt Gay missed a 48-yard field goal at the end of that drive. But the scoring opportunity for the Bucs was taken away. And with the three-point margin of victory for Rams deciding the game, that obviously matters quite a bit.
The issue lies in the matter of the timing of the football hitting the turf vs. the reason the rule exists. While the ball was obviously dead, Evans was still in a defenseless position after trying to make the catch. In that moment, the rules still protected him. The rules also said that enough time had passed for the play to be dead, but not enough time had passed for Evans to have relinquished his status as being in a defenseless position.
That is to say, the ball was “dead” as far as the play was concerned, but Evans’ actions in the play and position at the time of the hit were very much live.
And had Evans incidentally tipped the football up instead of down, the penalty would have been enforced as a live-ball foul, and the Bucs would have kept possession with a new set of downs. Same exact hit, same exact timing, same exact penalty, completely different result, based solely on the direction of the tipped pass.
Again, the officiating crew made the correct call by the letter of the law, even if Shawn Hochuli needed a full Hochulian minute to explain himself on the field. But the league ought to use this example as a loophole that should be closed. While it would be largely impossible for a defensive player to manipulate this rule in a way that allowed him to dole out headshots as soon as passes hit the turf, the league would likely still desire a punishment that fits the crime for a rule paramount to the efforts of increasing player safety.