I purposely waited until the Eagles – Colts game went final and the Eagles won before I even entertained writing this post. As a life long Eagles fan, I wanted to be sure that the content would not come off like sour grapes if they had lost. Otherwise, I'm thinking that I can get some support on this, even from folks who don't like the Eagles at all.
The leagues new radical stance on physical play again was brought into the forefront of a game in the second quarter of the Philly/Indianapolis match-up. With the Colts trailing, Payton Manning was driving down the field, trying to get a score before the half. On one pass attempt, he zipped a very Peyton-esque pass to wide receiver Austin Collie. Collie caught the pass, turned, took a step, and was hit almost simultaneously by eagles defenders Quentin Mikell and Kurt Coleman. Collie dropped the pall, the play was called dead and a flag flew from the nearest official. Collie was injured on the play and eventually carted off on the back board. Later it was learned he had suffered a concussion, but nothing more serious, thank goodness.
Normally, as an eagle fan, the fact that the play was called an incomplete pass would have been aggravating enough. It was clear even before the replay that Collie had time to turn and step before the hits. The insult went further, however, as Mikell was penalized for "hitting a defenseless receiver." As Collie lay on the field and was attended to by the medical staff, the replay was run for those of us at home over and over. It confirmed that the play was a catch and fumble. It was also confirmed that the roughest part of the hit was not delivered by Mikell, but by Coleman, and yes, there was helmet to helmet contact. After Collie was removed from the field, the Colts got a 15 yard lift and a first down.
Here's the rub: Once a receiver catches a ball, he his, according to the NFL rule book, a runner. Once he is a runner, is is, by process of elimination, not a defenseless receiver. Helmet to helmet contact is permissible unless the defensive player launches himself head first, commonly referred to as spearing. This was certainly not the case. as the on-the-filed treatment of Collie was being delivered, the TV announcers rambled on about the heinous hit. But within their rant were a couple of lines that clarified the real issue. First, the tidbits above about the rule book came from them. Secondly, they explained very bluntly that, in the wake of the leagues new crackdown on hitting, officials are told that when in doubt, call the penalty.
This assertion, if true, is nothing less that an egregious smashing of the precepts of fair play. This particular case is as good an example as you can have. If the play is not called incomplete, as in there was a catch and fumble, they cannot call the penalty for hitting an defenseless receiver. In order to call that penalty, they have to rule that the pass was incomplete. What we have is a play whose outcome has been changed by this ridiculous stance on physical play. What's more, if the play had been called a fumble, it could be reviewed. Being that it was called incomplete, a review is pointless if even allowed, much like the terrible fumble non-call was in the Steelers game recently. This apparently new directive to officials, if there really is such a thing, comes on the heels of complaints that fines have been levied in instances where there was no penalty. That is easy enough to fix if you instruct officials to call penalties "when in doubt."
The damage that is being done to the game already by changing the rules for the sake of pampering millionaire players – players who, by the way, are the most vehement opponents to the crack down – is bad enough. If we have already reached the point where play outcomes are judged only in part be the actual events on the field and have to be run through this new violence filter, what exactly is the point of watching the games at all?
It should be interesting to see if a fine is given in this case. It was Mikell who was called for the penalty, but Coleman who had the ultimately legal helmet to helmet contact. Regardless of the punitive outcomes, it seems clear now that the NFL is trying to turn a corner. The question seems to be whether there will be as many fans around that corner who are willing to watch compromised games.