The play has been a large topic of conversation on blog sites and at water coolers across the country today and rightfully so.
The hit was late. The hit was brutal. The hit certainly warranted the 15-yard penalty it brought about.
But the ejection and the suspension? Not so much. Hear me out.
Watching the play live was shocking. I could not believe that Wesley had laid into Smith with that type of tenacity and ferocity before the ball got there. After viewing the replay, though, I felt a little different about it.
No, I don't think the play should be deemed as 'acceptable,' but Smith could certainly have done a lot more to protect himself than he did.
Wesley made a good play to beat his blockers and to be the first man down the field providing coverage. Panthers' punter Jason Baker did a good job of getting enough hang time to allow the coverage to get down the field before Smith and his dangerous skill set had a chance to reel of a return.
Wesley's position on the play is known as the "gunner." The sole job of the gunner is to get down the field and either force a fair catch by the returner or deliver a hit as soon as he catches the ball to prevent a return and possibly force a turnover. When a returner signals for a fair catch, you pull up and either A) run past him if you're coming too fast or, B) slow down enough to hang around the spot of the catch in the event of a muff.
Smith's job as a returner is to either fair catch the ball, catch and return the ball, or get as far away from the ball as possible and let it go. Being a returner in the NFL is one of the most dangerous jobs in the sport of football. You are putting your body on the line with no protection outside of a couple of blockers and your sense of location and timing. You are the epitome of "hung out to dry." So, the first thing you are taught when learning how to return kicks is to always protect yourself first and foremost. You are always taught to fair catch the ball if there is imminent danger of being crushed by a defender. This is the key 'rule' that Smith broke on the play.
In all reality, as malicious as it looked, Wesley only beat the ball by about a half-second or so. Yes, that is a long time in football, but it is not long at all on a play that has to be as perfectly-timed as a punt. Had Wesley been a half second or even a full second later on the play, he still would have demolished Clifton Smith and Smith would still likely have a concussion. Wesley was relatively untouched and was coming down the field on a full head of steam. As a gunner, he is looking for two things: a fair catch signal or a motion or movement that indicates the returner is in the process of catching the ball.
Smith had to step up to attempt to make the catch. He took a few steps and stopped just before Wesley lit into him, indicating that he had reached the point on the field where the ball would land, which in turn indicates that he was preparing to make the catch.
Smith showed next to no awareness on the play because he HAD to see Dante Wesley coming at him with the speed at which he was. He HAD to see that his blockers were beat. He HAD to see that he had absolutely no time to return the ball, regardless of whether or not Wesley timed his hit correctly.
There was nowhere near enough time between the time that Wesley made contact with Smith and the time the ball hit the ground for Smith to have called a fair catch, which should have been his only option on the play. The Bucs called the timeout and made the Panthers kick the ball to have a shot at a return, but this was not a shot at a return. It seemed like Smith was going to catch the ball at all costs and try to make something of the return, but he made himself a sitting duck.
As Wesley said after the game in his apology, it was simply bad timing. Wesley was definitely early on the play, no doubt about it. There's the penalty. But Smith was very late on the play in deciding what he wanted to do, and ended up making a poor decision in the end by never even attempting a fair catch. If he gets an arm up there, Wesley is every bit the "bad guy" he is being made out to be. No matter how fast you are coming down the field, you are taught to be keyed in on the returner and a fair catch signal is the equivalent of a pilot being forced to hit the eject button.
To make this clear once again, I completely agree with the general consensus that the hit was brutal. I agree with the penalty he received and if you want to get really specific, I agree with the ejection to the degree that putting Wesley back on the field after that play and the melee that broke out after it would be putting him directly into harm's way, which you simply cannot do.
The suspension is just the latest of a rash of over-reactions by the league to aggressive defensive plays. Wesley's hit was only a poorly timed attempt by a special teams standout to make a big play to inspire his team in a season where there hasn't been much fodder for inspiration. Had Smith not been diagnosed with a concussion when brain injuries and trauma have been in the news recently, I don't think Wesley receives anything more than a monetary fine.
Dante Wesley is not a dirty player nor should he be following this incident. The fault on the play should be split directly in half between Wesley and Smith. Smith would have gone nowhere fast if he had caught the ball, and Wesley delivered a crushing but legal blow with the intent of causing Smith to mishandle the punt.
The Panthers will miss Wesley, who is 10th in team history with 46 special teams tackles, on the field Sunday with the likes of Roscoe Parrish and company coming to town.