Concerns for player safety in the NFL are at a new low, as far as the NFL is concerned.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton entered the spotlight this weekend after outlining his intentions to speak with Roger Goodell about the hits he’s been subject to so far in the 2016 season. The quarterback has been the recipient of several missed unnecessary roughness penalties this season and seems to have had enough:
"It's really taking the fun out of the game for me honestly," Newton said per NFL.com after the Panthers’ 30-20 win over the Cardinals on Sunday. "Because at times I don't even feel safe. And enough is enough. I plan on talking to Commissioner [Roger] Goodell about this. But it's not fun. And I don't know what I have to do."
"I could have torn my ACL," Newton said of a low he took from Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell. "That's the breaking point."
Let’s refrain from the name-calling, stop and think for a minute (and forget about the ridiculous outfit he was wearing) — because the quarterback has a point. As we’ve constantly reiterated on a seemingly week-to-week basis, the NFL’s stance on player safety is one more of public relations than it is of compassion. We’re not sympathizing with Newton as a guy who has had to endure more than other quarterbacks — whether he’s been individually “targeted” is irrelevant to the Bengals — but Newton’s general point about the NFL’s lack of concern for player safety is a valid one.
The NFL addressed Newton’s statements and, as usual, the response was perplexing:
Pro Football Talk reported that “per a source with knowledge of the league’s position on the matter, the NFL would contend that, as missed roughing calls go, [Newton is] faring better than plenty of quarterbacks,” citing 11 quarterbacks (Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, Geno Smith, Josh McCown, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Case Keenum and Ryan Tannehill) who have been subjected to more missed roughing the passer calls than the three missed calls on Newton.
Wait, what? Yes, the NFL is claiming that since the start of the 2013 season, Newton has only been the subject of three missed late hit calls. One could argue the Broncos got away with three unpenalized late hits in the Week 1 matchup between Denver and Carolina alone. On an unrelated note, the NFL’s response indicates Andy Dalton has been subject to three or fewer missed roughing the passer calls over the past three seasons. And another side note: how convenient of the NFL to only make information about missed calls on Newton available, rather than releasing information on the missed calls against other quarterbacks.
And on top of that all, they’re just making an excuse for why Newton shouldn’t be so upset, even though, they’re acknowledging their employees make tons of mistakes in the name of player safety.
For a league which seems to pride itself on safety, the NFL has done little to nothing to improve it. After referees refused to flag several Steelers for dangerous hits in January’s Wild Card matchup against the Bengals, the NFL defended the referees and even “clarified” the ruling of those situations, essentially changing the ruling upon realizing the legality of some brutal infractions. But apparently, these clarifications haven’t made the game much safer.
As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert pointed out, there have been several issues with official in regards to interpreting rules versus protecting players. Carson Wentz was fortunate not to suffer a serious injury in Week 7, as Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson rolled into the quarterback’s leg. And even in the Bengals’ Week 8 matchup with the Redskins, George Iloka made a helmet-to-helmet hit on DeSean Jackson which should’ve been penalized. If the NFL actually cares about protecting its players, the referees need to throw a flag in cases like these.
The player safety discussion is reminiscent of the whole politics debate on whether the constitution should be interpreted as it was originally written or viewed as an evolving document. Should the NFL’s rulings regarding penalties be a matter of ruling or player safety? In my personal opinion, the NFL should do its best to protect the players, even if it means calling a penalty on a questionable play just based on a referee’s snap-judgment. If the NFL values player safety like it claims it does, there’s no excuse not to do so.
Bengals fans have been rightfully up-in-arms about several officiating blunders which have gone against the team this season, but the fact of the matter is that the officiating this season has been poor across the board. Officials have missed huge calls in several games all season, from the fumble recovery ruling which helped the Redskins beat the Browns, to the uncalled Broncos hits on Newton, to the terrible officiating in Sunday’s matchup between the Saints and Seahawks (in the Saints’ favor, for what it’s worth). With all the talk of the NFL’s drop in ratings, has anyone stopped to think it might stem from the poor officiating (make the refs full-time, Goodell!) or the NFL’s hypocrisy when it comes to player safety? I’m not saying that’s why the NFL’s ratings are down, but it’s also a possibility. That’s up for you to decide.