The three Super Bowl rings, the five trips to the Pro Bowl, the interception returned for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, the 2000s All-Decade Team, the Patriots Hall of Fame induction — would any of that have happened for Ty Law had he played in today’s NFL?
“I would probably have a hard time, because of the rules,” Law acknowledged last week. “It would be hard, because I was programmed to play the game a certain way. I played real physical.’’
When Law played, defensive backs didn’t let receivers think they could run freely across the middle. Cheap shots weren’t taken, but a message was delivered with every hit.
“We used to want you to come across the middle,” he said. “Come across here if you want to!”
But that wouldn’t fly in today’s NFL. Law would draw too many unnecessary roughness penalties to play that way. The NFL now is about offense, fantasy points, and concussion prevention. Ticky-tack contact turns into a 30-yard pass interference penalty on the defense. And those bone-crushing hits that used to lead highlight reels now draw 15-yard penalties, even if the hit is clean.
Brandon Browner learned that lesson the hard way last Sunday in San Diego. He was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Chargers tight end Ladarius Green, even though he led with his shoulder and delivered the force of the hit to Green’s shoulder. Green was still bobbling the ball and going for the catch, and Browner did what players are taught back in Pop Warner — dislodge the football.
“I was excited about the hit, to be honest,” Browner said. “Those are the hits you live for.”
But Green’s head snapped back, and that’s all that was needed for two penalty flags to come flying in. The penalty, which was not reviewable, wiped out an interception and touchdown return for Devin McCourty, and would have been a huge topic last week had the Patriots lost a close game.
“That was a [expletive] call,” Law said. “The way the game is being played today, I’m losing respect for the game. It was a good, clean hit. If anything, that hit should be in a coaching video. This is how you’re supposed to hit.”
The NFL agreed with Law — sort of. The NFL didn’t fine Browner, even though the hit resulted in a concussion for Green.
And head of officials Dean Blandino explained in his weekly video to media and network partners that Browner’s hit wasn’t “helmet to helmet,” but the fine print in the officiating manual said that it was still a personal foul. The legalese states that because Green was bobbling the ball, he didn’t have the ability to protect himself, and therefore got defenseless player protection, which protects him from “forcible hits to the head or neck area with the helmet, the neck, or the forearm.”
“It’s very close, and I think you could certainly see some contact to the head or neck area,” Blandino said, straining his best to support his officials. “The defender is trying to do what we want him to do, but he does have to lower the target in order to avoid contact in any part of this area.”
Had Browner hit Green just a few inches lower, he probably would have been in the clear — we say “probably,” because the officials still might throw a flag for a violent hit, anyway.
But all this talk about aiming for a lower target and leading with your shoulder — does anyone know how hard it is to keep all that in mind within the split-second reactions of the NFL?
“I can’t possibly imagine someone thinking that quick,” Browner said. “You can’t be out there thinking like that. You’re trying to play ball and make plays.”
“It happens so fast. It’s bang-bang. You think just to knock the ball loose and get your head out of the way. Natural instincts.”
And lowering the target doesn’t work, either. Sometimes, the ball carriers go low. Suddenly you’re hitting him in the head when you thought you were getting him in the chest, and earning a 15-yard penalty for your team.
“Is it hard? Of course,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said. “Even if you target the right place and they duck, now it’s at the discretion of the refs.”
This play is exactly why Bill Belichick brought up a measure in front of the competition committee last spring to allow coaches to throw the challenge flag on any play on the field. When the action is happening so fast, why can’t the officials’ calls be reviewed?
“I don’t see anything wrong with the concept of, ‘You can challenge any two plays that you want,’ ” Belichick said last year. “To say that an important play can’t be reviewed, I don’t think that’s really in the spirit of trying to get everything right and making sure the most important plays are officiated properly.”
Belichick’s proposal didn’t pass, but it will probably have a lot more support this year. Blandino said in his video that the league will have on the agenda again this offseason whether these types of hits need to be reviewable, like they are in college football. A holding call or pass interference may be in the eye of the beholder, but a helmet-to-helmet hit is pretty black or white.
“All close plays like that should have to be reviewed,” Law said. “They would’ve seen that was a clean hit, there’s nothing malicious about it. I just think it’s unfair to the defensive player.”
Browner said that he’s not going to change his style of play.
“If it happens, it happens. If you get fined, you get fined,” he said. “You don’t play timid or trying to avoid plays like that.”
Law just wants the NFL to stop over-litigating play on the field. It’s a physical sport, and big hits are going to happen.
“This is football, and we all know what we signed up for, and that’s contact,” Law said. “It was just a [expletive] call, man, there’s nothing else to say about it. And they need to start reviewing that, do something about it, because they’re going to lose the integrity of the game when they’re calling stuff like that.”