With the league's new rules on player safety and trying to limit concussions, playing aggressively and trying to dislodge the ball from a receiver with a big hit almost certainly will draw a penalty.
Such was the case on Sunday at Lambeau Field, when the unfortunate result of a collision between Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson and Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley was Finley ending up in a hospital with a serious neck injury.
On a fourth-quarter catch over the middle from Aaron Rodgers, Finley had time to brace for impact and did so by lowering his head. Gipson, coming from his deep safety spot, also lowered his head, but turned away to make contact with his right shoulder while teammate T.J. Ward dragged Finley down from behind.
Still, Gipson was penalized for unnecessary roughness as Finley lay motionless on the turf.
"I haven't seen it on film," said Packers safety M.D. Jennings. "I think he was just trying to make a play. It was one of those bang-bang plays. You know, from our point of view at the safety position, you don't have a lot of time to react to things. You know, a lot of times stuff just blows up in your face and you've got to try to make a decision. I don't think he was trying to do anything dirty on the play."
Jennings and colleagues at the position are in the bull's-eye of officials and the league office more than any other position on the field. Already this regular season, 16 of the 25 fines (64 percent) handed out for hits on a defenseless player and helmet-to-helmet contact have been given to safeties. The next closest position is linebackers at just four. Last year, 20 of 50 such fines (40 percent) were given to safeties, eight more than linebackers.
While there is much stronger evidence against repeat offenders (the Redskins' Brandon Meriweather was suspended this week for one game) who launch themselves as tacklers or lead with their head, the unfairness comes for players who want to stay aggressive and use proper technique. Gipson, in this instance, seems to fit that case.
"It's unfortunate (Finley) got hurt," Browns cornerback Buster Skrine told Ohio's News-Herald. "It's supposed to be a legal hit. We're not worried about any calls being called. We're just out there playing every snap. Whatever happens, happens, but we're not a cheap-shot team."
Packers safety Jerron McMillian, fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit last season, was tagged $15,750 again this season — for a hit that gave Detroit Lions tight end Tony Scheffler a concussion. Jennings, on the other hand, and fellow starter Morgan Burnett have managed to escape any penalties or fines while trying to play aggressive. But that could change through no fault of their own.
"As long as you use the proper technique, it's out of your control," said Burnett. "It's up to the league to look at it. As long as you're not intentionally trying to like take a guy out or do something dirty, the only thing you do is just to trust and allow your technique and go from there."
"You've just got to go out there and be disciplined and trust your training," added Jennings. "We've been taught from day one how to tackle — see what you hit — things like that. You've just got to go out there and do your job. You can't be slowing up or things like that because that's when a lot of injuries happen, not playing full speed, things like that."
Jennings, a three-year veteran, said the only hesitation for him on the field comes from making a split-second decision on whether to go for an interception vs. trying to separate the ball from a receiver. For teammate Chris Banjo, an undrafted rookie free agent, there is a learning process. His thoughts on trying to dislodge the ball from a receiver, as his job duty would entail, knowing he might get penalized and hurt the team, are a little more confusing.
"I don't know. I really feel like there isn't any thought process anymore," said Banjo. "I mean, the only thing that, me specifically, you see a guy and there's an opportunity to try to get the ball out, you still have to get him to the ground and just go low. As soon as you see a guy spin or anything, you just go low. Unfortunately, with the moving targets, you kind of have to go lower than what you imagined because a lot of times guys catch the ball and also go low, as well. So, that's why you start to see some of these ankle or knee injuries that are real unfortunate, but to our defense, we're just thinking of keeping the contact out of the upper portion of the body, period, just so you don't accidentally hit a certain area or whatnot. We've been told that we're responsible for what we hit. So, we know if we hit anywhere below, you know, in the legs, I highly doubt we would get fined for that."
In the Packers' Oct. 13 game at Baltimore, Randall Cobb broke his fibula on a similar bang-bang play to Finley's. Instead of going for the knockout hit high, Ravens safety Matt Elam went low with a helmet hit to Cobb's knee. The tackle initially drew the ire of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but Elam explained himself to Rodgers and was not fined nor penalized on the play.
Such is the dilemma for NFL safeties and the officials trying to judge their intent.
"It's those guys' professions. They're human beings and they're trying to do it to the best of their ability," said Burnett of the officials. "The only thing you can do is just respect their judgment call because they get paid to do a job and they do their job.
"I haven't watched (the hit on Finley) again but, I mean, the guy (Gipson) was just trying to make a play. I'm pretty sure the guy wasn't purposely trying to do that but it's just one of those unfortunate accidents and unfortunate things about the game. I mean, it's just one of those freak accidents that are just out of a human being's control."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org