BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- When Jacksonville safety Barry Church delivered that massive shot to Rob Gronkowski, the one that knocked the Patriots’ all-world tight end out of the game, the rage amongst Pats fans was real.
Opinions on Church’s fate ranged from immediate ejection, to suspension, to my personal favorite - the Jags safety not being allowed to play again until Gronk was finally cleared to return to a game - any game.
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Given modern day technology, we had amateurs breaking down the point of impact like they actually knew there was intent to injure. Given the emotion of the moment, and the sight of a woozy Gronk heading off to the locker room, never to return to the AFC Championship Game, it was somewhat understandable. Somewhat.
There’s no arguing the hit was against the current NFL rules, and Church got what the rule book said he should: a 15-yard penalty. Later, the NFL tacked on a fine of nearly $25,000.
“25K for making a football play?” asked Eagles safety Corey Graham. “That’s tough.”
Another Eagles safety, Malcolm Jenkins, didn’t want to make light of concussions -- or any injury for that matter -- but did note that, “We’re put in positions all the time in secondary where we gotta protect ourselves, our pockets and the other team. That makes no sense. I think we should start fining quarterbacks for putting guys in situations like that, personally.” He was joking about the last part, sort of.
Devin McCourty has roamed the secondary for eight seasons. As he points out, the Pats “don’t draw a lot of those penalties,” thanks to an emphasis on fundamentals and tackling techniques, but admits that what happened to Church will eventually happen to any defensive back that’s in the game long enough.
“We’ve all had those type of plays,” he said.
Teammate Duron Harmon concurs.
“That’s one of the tricky things about playing in this game,” said the fifth-year pro. “You can’t take it away from what the refs are doing. They’re calling it right. It is illegal using the crown of your head. But it was one of those plays that was bang-bang. He definitely didn’t intend to do it.”
“That’s been the debate going around all year, right,” asked Graham. “Defensive backs . . . they put us in a tough situations. Honestly, i don’t know what was so bad about that hit. Obviously, you don’t want to see him get hurt. You never want to see anybody get hurt, but you got two options, you hit him high or you hit him down low. I don’t think Gronk wants a guy going in on his ankles, flipping him and messing up his legs and his knees and stuff like that.”
“I didn’t think what [Church] did was wrong,” said another Eagles safety, Rodney McLeod.
“It was unfortunate,” added Jenkins, one of the most well-respected veterans in the league and someone who will probably find himself up against Gronk quite a bit on Sunday. While he appreciates the league’s desire to make football safer, Jenkins notes that “you can’t take the violence out of it,” and that hit was “one of those things . . . in a game, especially a playoff game, where you’re trying to separate a ball from a receiver, some of those things are hard to avoid.”
As Graham said, do you think Gronk or any other receiver wants their knees targeted? We know that’s something that Gronk has been very animated about in the past, and a multitude of players have said they too would prefer a head shot than a torn ACL. The latter, they reason, can cost you a season and as we’ve seen many times, maybe your job. Though the long-term ramifications of concussions are murkier and certainly scarier, few NFL players lose sleep over the big picture, and even the smartest ones, like Jenkins, have hidden brain injuries in the past.
“I got a concussion and nobody really knew,” Graham admitted Wednesday about an unspecified game. “I chose to keep it to myself, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a great idea.”
Jenkins says the league is doing a better job of watching out for it’s players even though it’s not without its flaws, as we’ve seen.
“It protects players from themselves,” he said. “We’re all competitors and especially at this stage, the Super Bowl, wanting to be able to go out and compete. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point, it’d be hard for any player to keep himself out of this game. So I think that’s what the protocol is in place for.”
A protocol, by the way, that Gronk remained through Wednesday’s full padded practice here in Minnesota. The Pats tight end is already on record as saying he’ll play Sunday, and the consensus is the team, which can wait to get him ‘officially’ cleared, is confident about his availability as well. You can also bet that won’t have trepidation about sending him down the seam again. After all, the object is to win the game. Which brings us back to the Church hit again, and notion that defenders can find a strike zone to hit the receiver even as he’s moving.
“The strike zone changes that fast,” said McCourty, snapping his fingers. “You can go in there and have it timed up perfectly but if the pass is low and the guy bends down, now you’re at his head.”
“Unless you get there when he’s still extended and he can’t get his head down, what do you do?” said Graham. “To me, I just don’t think about it much. Just go out there and play football and hope you don’t get caught in a bad situation.”
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We’ll leave the final word to Jenkins, who may just find himself in the same dilemma Church was in less than two weeks ago.
“I think people assume that we’re better athletes than we really are,” Jenkins answered when I asked about the idea of zeroing in on one area in a second, or less. “The speed of the game makes it really really really tough to adjust like that on the fly so often times as you approach a receiver you make up in your mind kind of where that target is and you strike. Often times, you see receivers that duck. They catch the ball and all of a sudden they change their body position and the defenders already picked their strike zone which, when he went to go hit, was probably legal and now all of a sudden the offensive guy changes his body position and you’re in a compromising position.
“Or, like you said, you see guys go like and they’re going to call it a dirty hit. I don’t think people really understand what it feels like as a defender, especially as a DB, to run full speed into guys 240 pounds (or in Gronk’s case 265 or so) and hit him right in his center of gravity. That makes it dangerous to the defender.”
So you must make that decision. Me? Or him? I don’t know anyone who plays this game that would answer the former . . .