Last Sunday night's game in San Diego was a street fight. On a day that defense ruled the day, one play stood out above all others. In the third quarter, Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers found LaDarius Green streaking across the middle of the field. Green bobbled the pass several times before being body rocked by Patriots corner back Brandon Browner. The football sailed into the air before landing in the arms of safety Devin McCourty who returned the interception for a touchdown.
As the Patriots celebrated the swing in momentum, the refs gathered to discuss a flag that had been thrown during the play. The verdict: personal foul, hit to the head, number 39, 15 yards, automatic first down.
The TV cameras flashed to an irate Browner, coach Bill Belichick was beside himself, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork could be seen pleading with officials claiming that Browner had hit Green in the shoulder.
In real time, the play looked worse than it was. Browner hit Green square in the shoulder, snapping his head back and dropping him to the ground like a sack of bricks. Green stayed down for an extended period of time, shell shocked. Upon review, nothing about the hit was illegal. The hit was delivered square on Green's shoulder, Browner never launched or even left his feet, and Green was not a defenseless receiver at the time of the hit. By definition of the rules set forth by the NFL, there was nothing illegal about the hit Browner delivered. It was a text book hit, separating man from ball.
Browner explained the hit with this post-game tweet:
It's a violent game we play! In a critical point in the game. My intentions was to knock the ball loose, nothing more nothing less
— Brandon Browner (@bbrowner27) December 8, 2014
The only infringement Browner committed was delivering a bone jarring hit. A hit that every defensive player, everyone that has ever dawned a pair of shoulder pads, and everyone who's ever watched a football game, loves.
In today's NFL it is hits like these, hits that used to be a regular Sunday occurrence, that are being eliminated. But it leaves defenders and coaches wondering, where can you hit offensive players anymore?
The coaches are doing the best they can, teaching players the in's and out's of the rules and allowing them to play the game and get away with what they can, but it is clearly becoming more difficult, "We coach it exactly the way that’s written in the rule book," Belichick
said. "What we’re allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do, and
that’s exactly the way we coach it. It was a close play. You should
probably talk to the crew that called it. We coach whatever the rules
are; we coach within the rules. That’s how we coach it."
The crew that called the game didn't have the benefit of making the call after seeing a multitude of replays like the fans at home. They had to make the snap decision while looking at things in real time. As things stand now, replay doesn't encompass penalties like Browner's. Given the benefit of additional looks at plays like this officials, and the NFL, may be able to further identify the bad hits from the good hits.