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The Defenseless Player Rule & Application: D.J. Swearinger v. Wes Welker

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In Houston's game against the Denver Broncos last Saturday, Texans' safety D.J. Swearinger was flagged for unnecessary roughness after inadvertently hitting Broncos' receiver Wes Welker in the head. Welker was later diagnosed with a concussion, his third in less than a year. What's the rule, and was it applied correctly?

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First and foremost, I think I speak for a majority of folks who all wish Wes Welker a speedy recovery.  Our own bfd outlined the scary reality of brain injuries; and most fans do not want to see players become crippled from playing this game.

As often happens from an NFL play where a violent collision takes place and flags fly, people will draw opinions and take strong positions on things like "intent," "what could have happened," "what should have happened," and so forth.  Before we dive into opinion, speculation, perspective and theoretical skylarking, let's take a quick look at the language in place that provides a framework for the officials who subjectively apply the rule during games.

The NFL's Definition

Rule 12 - Player Conduct / Section 2 - Personal Fouls / Article 9 - Unnecessary Roughness

Penalty: For unnecessary roughness: Loss of 15 yards.
The player may be disqualified if the action is judged by the official(s) to be flagrant.
Note: If in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official(s) should always call unnecessary roughness.

Article 9
It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
(a) Players in a defenseless posture are:

(1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;

(2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player;
(3) A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;
(4) A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;
(5) A player on the ground at the end of a play;
(6) A kicker/punter during the kick or during the return;
(7) A quarterback at any time after a change of possession, and
(8) A player who receives a "blindside" block when the blocker is moving toward his own endline and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side.

(b) Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:

(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, face mask, forearm, or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; and

(2) Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/"hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body.

Note: The provisions of (2) do not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on an opponent.

The Fog of Concussions

The Fog of Concussions

Who is Responsible?

I submit that there are a couple of people who are more responsible for creating a "defenseless receiver" than the tackler in football:

The offensive coordinator, or coach, who designs the play and/or calls the play into the game.  There are ways to design routes in the middle of the field to great success while avoiding "hot spots" where collisions are more common.  It seems odd that the league doesn't inspect this area of the game more as a root cause that leads to putting players at risk.

The quarterback has a tactical responsibility by his own actions with the ball.  The coordinator may not know how the defense is going to be positioned for the execution of the play, but the quarterback certainly can see that before launching the ball to his target.  These two individuals own some percentage, if not the majority, of the responsibility for setting up a player to be "defenseless" in the midst of an opponent's defense in an inherently violent sport.

A receiver is not going to ignore the incoming pass in order to protect themselves, because that's a sure way to get benched or waived from the team for poor performance.  Therefore, the responsibility of protecting receivers lies in the hands of the quarterback and coaches.  Instead, the NFL is focusing on punishing the players on the opponent's defense as if they have some innate ability that transcends the laws of time and physics.

Swearinger v. Welker

In the play where D.J. Swearinger hit Wes Welker, there are a few things to consider:

1.  NFL defensive players are not going to just sit there patiently and allow receivers to catch a football, secure it, take several steps, scan the area around them, and then either brace in an effort to protect themselves or dash into a clear area to advance the ball.  Defensive players are charged with separating the ball from the intended target or stopping the player from advancing the ball.  They will continue to do this as safely as possible within the limitations of their own actions, but they can't predict the uncertain actions of the targeted player.

2.  What exactly are NFL defenders supposed to do?  If they pause and let the receiver catch the ball, they'll lose their job and be replaced by another player who is covering better and is more aggressive.  If they hit low, they can potentially cause catastrophic injury to the receiver (legal or not), just as D.J. Swearinger did to Miami's Dustin Keller last year.  If they go to the midsection of the torso, there's the risk the receiver will duck and put their head in line with the incoming blow; as was the case here with Swearinger's hit on Wes Welker.

3.  Peyton Manning could have thrown the ball to a different receiver since it was obvious that Swearinger was in close proximity to defend against Welker.

4.  Wes Welker could have maintained his posture instead of crouching down after catching the ball, but that's not his instinct.  At 5' 9", he is already a shorter player than most, which makes his torso "hit zone" a small and low target for defenders to "legally" make contact with.  He also has a long history of getting concussed as he braces for impact by shrinking or crouching; that often puts his head in direct line for the incoming blow from a defender.  That is his instinctive reaction, and it is not likely to change.

5.  It appears in all the video replays that Swearinger maintained his footing (he didn't "launch" illegally), and led with his shoulder toward the chest area of Welker.  It was Welker's change in trajectory in a fraction of a second that moved his head into the path of Swearinger's incoming shoulder.

Coach's Support

Bill O'Brien weighed in with his support for D.J. via this quote from The Mothership:

"That particular play was a tough play," O’Brien said. "He did go in there with his shoulder, but the way that Welk (Welker) ended up trying to catch that ball, he went down and the angle changed at the last second so that D.J.’s shoulder and the V of the neck hit Welker at the same time in the head. D.J. was not trying to do any harm; he was trying to make the play and make the tackle. I think that the call was correct, but it changed at the last second on him and it was a tough play for him."

ABC News reported this from Denver Broncos' head coach John Fox:

Asked how Welker's spirits were, Fox said after the team's workout: "Very good. Talked to him this morning. He's feeling good. ... He'll be out there when he's healthy."

Also asked about the severity of Welker's concussion this time, Fox said: "I can't give a level. It's just a concussion. I don't think there's part concussion, half concussion. Either you're concussed or you're not, the way I understand it."

"Our first priority is his safety and well-being," Fox said. "... I know as an organization his well-being is our first priority. ... We just take it one day at a time. We'll see how he gets through today, and I get updated on every day medically on every player, including Wes in this case. We'll see what tomorrow brings."

With three concussions in such a short span for Welker, there has been some discussion in the public domain and on social media about whether the 33-year-old Welker should consider retirement. Fox said that subject has not been a part of his talks with Welker since Saturday's game.

"That's not been brought up at all," Fox said. "... I didn't sense that."

Fox added that the hit, by Texans safety D.J. Swearinger, is "part of football."

"It was penalized," Fox said. "... Those are things that happen in a game, whether it's our team or the opponent. It's football, and it happens. It's part of the game. Obviously we're disappointed in the results, but it happens during games, it's happened to our players, and I'm sure it will moving forward as well."

NFL Expectations Are Unrealistic

D.J. Swearinger wrapped it up perfectly with this quote from CBS Houston:

"It’s unrealistic," Swearinger said Monday after practice about the NFL’s expectations for defensive players. "It’s hard. You know, going full speed, you’re breaking on the ball, and the last second, you gotta do what you gotta to do to try to not hit a guy in a certain place when that guy ducks into the hit trying to protect themselves."

One could argue that the offense owns some responsibility for putting players in situations that increase the probability of this type of collision.  I would think that a future Hall of Fame quarterback with the incredible talent and knowledge that Peyton Manning has could certainly have chosen not to send the ball toward Wes Welker into triple coverage with D.J. Swearinger, Kareem Jackson and Jeff Tarpinian all ready to deliver a blow against a receiver on a crossing route over the middle.  That was the equivalent of leaving a car parked on train tracks and then having the nerve to yell at the train's engineer after he blew it to pieces.

The NFL is under a lot of pressure to reduce brain injuries, so they will continue to enforce penalties for hits to the head, even in cases where it appears to be inadvertent like this one.  There is no word yet on if Swearinger will be fined.  I certainly don't think he should be under these circumstances, but given the league's focus on head injuries, he's probably going to get fined regardless of it being deserved or not.

My take-aways include:

  • The NFL needs to reconsider the root-cause, and application of rules, related to "defenseless players," combined with the reality of what is possible for adherence of rules by defensive players with respect to meeting their prescribed roles and the limits of time and physics.
  • Coaches and quarterbacks need to own some responsibility in reducing the risk to exposing receivers to injury.
  • Concussions are VERY serious brain injuries with long-term effects that severely impact quality of life.
  • Wes Welker should consider retirement after this latest injury to his brain.  At the age of 33, and the number of concussions he has already suffered, he really should be focused on his future health.
  • D.J. Swearinger, notwithstanding a vocal personality that irritates some folks, was not egregiously in error for his actions in this incident.
*****

So what is your take on this play, the league's rules, the way the officials apply the rules in situations like this, and on offensive coaches and quarterbacks owning some of the responsibility to help protect their own players by not putting them in dangerous situations?