When a yellow flag landed it was immediately clear what the call was going to be. It was also immediately clear that it was going to be the wrong call.
“We all know what the flag’s gonna be, and if they call it a hit to the head/neck area, they’re wrong.”
—Chris Spielman, being correct
— The Lions Wire (@thelionswire) December 10, 2017
Detroit Lions defensive back Quandre Diggs had just leveled Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard, causing a fumble that was recovered by Detroit’s Glover Quin. As broadcaster Ronde Barber predicted,1 Diggs was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play, his hit deemed a shot to the head of a defenseless receiver. As Barber also noted, this was the wrong call, mainly because the receiver wasn’t defenseless (per NFL rules) and because Diggs didn’t hit him in the head.
Can’t even hit anybody anymore. This league is becoming flag football. pic.twitter.com/J9QR6fCu4z
— Detroit Videos 🎥 (@DetroitVideos) December 10, 2017
In the end, referee Ed Hochuli arrived at the right ruling: no penalty was assessed and Detroit was awarded possession. To get there, though, viewers had to sit through Hochuli’s incorrect call on the field, an official review that allowed the incorrect call to stand and then a challenge by Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell that resulted in a reversal of the call on the field. It became clear throughout the process that Hochuli knew he had gotten the call wrong and was trying to work his way to the correct verdict by navigating the league’s convoluted rules of what can be reviewed, rescinded or challenged. The whole ordeal lasted ten minutes, was a complete mess from beginning to end, and was a fitting microcosm of the NFL’s review policy.
Later on Sunday, Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a hard hit from 49ers pass rusher Elvis Dumervil. As Savage went down, the back of his head seemed to make hard contact with the ground. What followed immediately became one of the more disturbing NFL clips in recent memory:
— Sports Degens (@TheSportsDegens) December 11, 2017
That Savage was allowed to re-enter the game only a few plays later is a horrifying condemnation of the NFL’s supposed regard for player safety and in the aftermath of this incident there is little left to say other than that the league’s safety measures appear to be either utterly broken or completely ineffective.
The NFL is struggling to legislate its on-field product and failing to protect those who risk their safety to play it. The former is a matter of sport and can be dealt with at the league’s leisure, but the latter is a matter of health and safety; it’s urgent. It needs to be dealt with now because even as it’s tempting to hope that the league addresses its safety concerns “before something terrible happens,” the truth is that, as that clip of Savage fencing makes clear, it already has.