During the Thanksgiving rivalry match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, the rookie running back LeVeon Bell took a ferocious hit while driving for the endzone.
Bell was briefly knocked out, and many assumed the worst when he remained motionless on the ground.
Despite falling into the endzone and the ball clearly crossing the plane (all that’s required for a touchdown) the score didn’t count. The reason? His helmet came off a half-yard before the line.
It’s a relatively new rule (implemented in 2010) that states that a play ends immediately when a player loses his helmet, and, perhaps a good one.
After all, there’s nothing more dangerous than a helmet-to-helmet collision. A strike from a helmet on an unprotected skull — inadvertent or not — could easily kill.
Plays such as the one by the Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Witten, a 53-yard catch and run that saw him lose his helmet after a high hit, are exciting, sure, but are now gone for good.
(If Witten had made that play in today’s NFL, the play would have been called dead on the Eagles’ 35-yard line.)
So on Thursday night, when Bell’s helmet came off after a scary hit from Ravens’ cornerback Jimmy Smith, the referees were technically right to place the ball inside the one-yard line.
The touchdown, earned by a rookie runner who was willing to put his body on the line to keep his team in the game, was taken away.
Now, I doubt in the grand scheme of things Bell really cares about losing that touchdown (he already had one on the day, and two plays later the Steelers scored on fourth down).
He’ll be more concerned with the concussion suffered as a result of the hit. As should the Steelers and fans be.
But there’s clearly something wrong when a rule created solely to protect the players is responsible for taking away one of the game’s great achievements.
There’s a difference between Witten’s catch-and-run (and the hit he could have suffered after he lost his helmet), and Bell’s fall into the endzone.
Bell wasn’t making a football move, and he wasn’t trying to gain extra yardage. He simply fell forward. He was already going down.
The letter of the law was followed, and as a result Bell’s achievement was pointlessly stripped of him.
The NFL has become a letter-of-the-law league, where any inadvertent yet potentially dangerous hit is flagged, without thought to intent or situation.
While obviously some players’ need to have their dangerous hits flagged — and fined, as is the case for Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather — the referees no longer have license to use common sense in applying the rules.
Common sense dictates that Bell and the ball weren’t going anywhere but across the endzone when the helmet came off.
Perhaps the NFL cannot afford any gray area anymore in how the games are managed. Arguably in this regard their hands are tied.
But changes to the rule could be made so that things like this doesn’t happen again.
Why not just have the play end as soon as the ref blows the whistle? Penalising any player who tries to tackle the ball carrier after the whistle is blown, so long as the player is still going to ground.
That way the player is protected and whatever hard yards he managed to gain while falling forward are preserved, but he can’t sprint off and risk another big hit.
As it stands, with the ball being placed at the exact spot the helmet comes off, the rule in a way encourages hits that could take a helmet off.
The players now know — at least, we’d like to think so — the risks associated with playing the game. They go out there knowing that they’re putting their bodies on the line.
That’s not to say the NFL shouldn’t implement more rules to make the game safer, long term. They absolutely should.
But when a player pays the price to make a play for his team — and in this case, the price is especially heavy — he shouldn’t have that achievement stripped from him due to a technicality.
It’s not in the spirit of the rule, or the game.