Officials need a bigger safety net

BY Jason Whitlock • November 8, 2010

Let me repeat: I’m all for Roger Goodell’s effort to make the NFL safer for its players.

I just think the league could go about it in a much better way.

The crackdown on helmet-to-helmet and other violent hits is going to damage the credibility of the game and, quite possibly, spark an unprecedented, spontaneous and dangerous outrage/backlash in some NFL city.

On Sunday, Quintin Mikell and Kurt Coleman executed the perfect defensive secondary play, sandwiching Colts receiver Austin Collie just as he reeled in a Peyton Manning pass and took a second step running upfield. Collie fumbled. The Eagles recovered. The hit knocked Collie out cold.

A ref threw a flag, penalizing Mikell for unnecessary roughness. The ref ruled Collie’s catch an incomplete pass and flagged Mikell for a helmet-to-helmet hit. The Colts went on to score a touchdown on the drive.

In the fourth quarter of the same game, with the Colts trailing by nine points, Philly’s Trent Cole beat Indy’s left tackle and executed the perfect tomahawk-chop sack/strip on fourth-and-18. Game over.

Not quite.

A ref flagged Cole for unnecessary roughness. Cole’s hand hit the back of Manning’s helmet as he chopped down on the cocked football. The penalty gave Indy a first down. The Colts scored a touchdown, cutting Philly’s lead to 26-24.

Fortunately, Manning threw a last-second interception and Indy’s rally fell short.

What if it hadn’t? What if Manning had led the Colts to a last-play field goal and victory? What if this scenario plays out in a playoff game or the Super Bowl?

There could be riots in the city of the losing team.

Goodell is correctly trying to change the needlessly violent culture of the NFL. I get that. I’m for that. But let’s do it the right way.

Quarterbacks don’t get injured when hands accidentally hit the back of their helmets. The play Coleman and Mikell made on Austin Collie cannot and should not be eliminated from the game.

Collie was not defenseless. The helmet-to-helmet contact was just as much Collie’s fault as it was the Philly defensive back. The contact was unintentional.

You could see all of that watching the replay. The ref on the field did not have the benefit of replay, and he should have.

Use the cameras! The NFL is a reality TV show. There are cameras seemingly everywhere. Use them!

Add a seventh referee who calls the game from the replay booth. Give him a microphone, put a camera on him and make him a part of the game. Let him arbitrate judgment calls such as unnecessary-roughness penalties.

Accidentally hitting Peyton Manning in the back of the head should not be 15 yards and an automatic first down (especially when you allow a defender to manhandle Michael Vick when he’s clearly out of bounds). The hit on Collie shouldn’t be 15 yards and an automatic first down. The Manning and Collie hits were totally different from the illegal and unnecessary hit Green Bay safety Nick Collins laid on Roy Williams on Sunday night.

Collins should’ve been ejected. Williams was defenseless. The ball had sailed by him. Collins delivered the helmet-to-helmet shot solely because he could. The refs flagged him for it. They should’ve ejected him. If the league's new emphasis on player safety has any merit, the NFL will suspend Collins for one game.

A replay ref can easily tell the difference between what Collins did and what Mikell and Coleman did.

Let the refs on the field throw all the unnecessary-roughness flags they want and let a replay ref sort out the legitimacy of the calls and the severity of the punishment.

The Collie play was a catch and a fumble. The penalty would’ve been overruled. The hit on Manning should’ve been treated like running into the kicker -- 5 yards and a replay of the down. When it comes to “illegal” hits, there should be two standards -- flagrant and incidental.

Can’t we allow common sense to play a small role in the rush to fix the game?

A fullback on an isolation play is free to lead with his head as he takes on a linebacker in the hole. Running backs drop their heads all the time. Safety is a two-way street.

In the interest of fairness and allowing defenders to do their jobs, why not use all the technology at our disposal to make the game right?

I don’t care about the “pace” of the game. Eliminate a couple of those pointless change-of-possession TV timeouts to make room for a few replay reviews.

The perception around the league is that Manning and the Colts get favorable treatment when it comes to protecting the players. I don’t blame the refs. Manning is the most important player in the league. It only makes sense the refs would be quick with the flag in a Manning game.

Replay review could add a touch of objectivity to subjective calls made at lightning speed. We’re putting the refs on the field in position to fail and unfairly swing the outcome of a game when we don’t have to.

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