For the better part of the last decade, the NFL has scrambled to make a violent game safer. It’s a tough – perhaps impossible -- task, but the intentions are good. Each year, more rules get legislated into the game. And each year, it not only gets more difficult to play defense, but it also gets harder to officiate.
The hope is that over time, players will learn safer tackling techniques, but it’s a long process – one that starts at the lower levels as players develop. Meanwhile, here we are in 2020, and it feels like defense in the NFL is nearly extinct.
So will there ever be a modern NFL team that figures out how to play good, physical defense legally under today’s strict rules?
I’m here to tell you that team already exists: The 2020 Chicago Bears.
The problem? The NFL has trained these officials as if social distancing also applies to playing defense. If you sneeze within six feet of a wide receiver, you’re probably going to get flagged for pass interference. And if you hit an offensive player hard, you’re probably going to get flagged, even if you followed the rules.
No, this is not just another column whining about officiating. This is a cry to the NFL to realize what is happening in front of their eyes. The league spent a decade trying to change the way in which teams play defense, hoping they will adapt and learn how to successfully stop offenses while not targeting players’ heads. There is now a team proving it can be done and what is the response from NFL officials?
Flag. Flag. Flag.
In a tweet that has since been deleted, Bears safety Eddie Jackson showed his frustration on social media Sunday night, tweeting: “If you think these refs don’t have something against us you Crazy.”
It's doubtful the NFL officiating office is actively targeting the Bears because of how physical they play. What’s far more likely is that the Bears are simply playing by the nuanced rules at a higher level than the referees are enforcing them. What the league should do is make cut-ups of how the Bears are playing and send it to the 31 other teams as a perfect example of how to play legal defense in 2020.
Case in point: Kyle Fuller. Fuller is one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league, but he has mastered a shoulder hit that is entirely legal and equally as jarring. And officials simply don’t know how to handle him, even though they study and prepare for these players/games each week. In Week 1, Fuller got flagged for unnecessary roughness when his helmet literally hit the football. That actually happened. Sunday against the Panthers, he was flagged for an obvious shoulder-to-shoulder hit, but technically, the league can defend the call because of the ambiguous way in which the rule is written:
“Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck.”
So you can hit the head or neck area even if you hit lower than the neck?
The rules are at the root of the problem. “Helmet-to-helmet” or “leading with the crown of the helmet” are terms that are easy to follow. But today, there are “defenseless receivers” and “football moves” and “head or neck areas” that apparently extend below the neck.
Look, I get it. The NFL wants dangerous hits legislated out of the game. But where is the line drawn? If players like Fuller are adapting to the rules and still finding a way to make game-changing plays with their physicality, they should be rewarded, not punished further.
“I think I could speak for the people that watch the game and they want to see people get hit,” Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said in September after getting flagged for falling on top of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. “They want to see the quarterback roughed up a little bit. You don’t want him to stand in the pocket and go on vacation.”
Hicks is right. Football fans still enjoy good defense. And they definitely don’t enjoy when game-changing defensive plays are reversed because of bad calls or poorly written rules.
In Week 5 against the Buccaneers, Fuller caused a fumble with a hit that should be put in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the perfect way to play defense in 2020. And yet, the back judge, who wasn’t near the play, still threw a late flag because he reacted to the impact of the hit instead of what he actually saw. It was a textbook legal hit and the most surprising development was that the officials actually got together and picked up the flag. Unfortunately, that common sense only lasted a week.
Meanwhile, pass interference continues to hold the game back, mainly because it is called so inconsistently. Jackson has had two pick-sixes called back this season for the same exact contact that wasn’t called Sunday when Panthers cornerback Rasul Douglas went over Allen Robinson’s back to defend a pass inside the 5-yard-line. But after replay review on pass interference calls turned into a complete disaster in 2019, it seems the default is now to call any kind of contact just to avoid what happened in the NFC Championship Game two years ago. If they couldn’t get it right with replay, how are the officials on the field supposed to get it right at full speed?
Instead of living with one brutal call, the NFL has now created a much bigger problem in which officials don’t know how to call pass interference consistently – just like when they didn’t know what a catch was for eight years.
This has become a pattern with the league’s officiating office. They overreact and overcorrect, which only makes the rules murkier and harder to officiate. Meanwhile, their best referees keep leaving for higher paying television jobs.
Worse, very good defensive players like Jackson and Fuller are being held back from becoming superstars when they are playing by the rules. You better believe Jackson is keeping track of the number of touchdowns he should have, tweeting Sunday: “That’s 8 TDs in 4 years.”
Unfortunately, only five counted.
Defense still matters. And the Bears are proving to the NFL that it is possible to play good, physical, game-changing defense in 2020.
The league’s only response is to throw another flag.