Brandon Meriweather of the Redskins was suspended for two games for a hit to a defenseless receiver in Saturday's game against the Ravens. But the NFL chose the wrong hit to punish Meriweather for, highlighting the difficulties of legislating hits to the head.
Based on my view of the hit to Torrey Smith, Meriweather made a reasonable attempt to use his shoulder, get low but without going after the knees which would be nearly as damaging (but less expensive to him). For that, as a fan, I'm grateful not to see Smith end up like Randall Cobb or Rob Gronkowski, both of whom suffered bad leg injuries in 2013 from low hits over the middle.
I can see why the referrees threw the flag but I empathize with Meriweather on that particular play. We see all the time that when a receiver falls down to make a catch or otherwise ducks his body, it results in a new target area that the defender has a hard time avoiding.
However, I believe that the NFL was right to fine Meriweather. They simply used the wrong hit to do so.
The real problem hit was the one on Bernard Pierce that left the running back with a concussion.
No, it wasn't flagged. No, it wasn't even illegal, technically. But it highlighted how egregiously bad Meriweather's tackling habits are and his disregard for his fellow players. Moreover, it demonstrates the broader challenges with legislating these hits.
While Warren Sapp extols Meriweather's alma mater while providing little in the way of analysis as per usual, we see Meriweather aim directly for Pierce's face, and land a direct helmet first hit on an unblocked tackle. Only after head contact is made does he even attempt to put his arms up. Some on Twitter explained it succinctly.
Meriweather's hit was dangerous and unacceptable and left a fellow player with a completely preventable concussion that threatens his immediate and long term health.
The problem is that the NFL is likely never to have fined or suspended him for that hit because technically Pierce was not "defenseless".
The problem with that term is that even a running back is not expecting to be tackled by a shot to the head because its a horrendous way to tackle. Sometimes it works as in this case.
A running back is supposed to evade or break tackles. Its not his job to protect himself from unlearning head-hunters like Meriweather. The hit bore a lot in common with the hit by James Harrison against Colt McCoy that resulted in a massive fine or the illegal hit on Bengals' punter Kevin Huber. The NFL has said that these head shots have no place in the game and for good reason. Fortunately for them, they are protected players. Some, like Willis McGahee, were not so lucky back in the days before rigid enforcement of illegal blows to the head and neck area.
Meriweather is a former first round pick from New England so naturally he has maintained a starting job despite being a marginal talent now on his third team who routinely causes penalties for his team. Unfortunately, more players are likely to be injured from his hits because he has shown scant evidence of learning from his mistakes. While Meriweather will probably appeal his hit on Torrey Smith, and perhaps rightfully so, let this not dissuade anyone from his poor tackling techniques and otherwise total disregard for the health of other players.
More problematically, hits like this will largely go under the radar at NFL HQ while well-meaning players are fined and penalized for attempting to make honest tackles in which the receiver just happened to fall or otherwise duck and create a new target area.
Some might be tempted to invoke the hit by Bernard Pollard against Stevan Ridley as a similar hit. But we see on that play that both players attempted to get as low as they can. Pollard led with the shoulder, nearly on his knees by the time contact is made, while Ridley ducked his head in front as well to avoid the blow. These things unfortunately happen but hopefully we can all agree there's nothing glorious about seeing a man knocked out cold on the field of battle.
The NFL is right to legislate these hits out of the game, however, their uneven enforcement of them is likely to continue to vex officials and fans of the game who want a return to "the good old days" when players were laid out unnecessarily, resulting in major health problems for players (not to mention massive legal problems for the NFL). They did the right thing this time, but only by coincidence.