Sports Nut

The Single Play That Encapsulates the 2010 Season

For a concise summary of the NFL in 2010, it’s hard to surpass the play that knocked Colts receiver Austin Collie out of Sunday’s game against the Eagles. I was in a special position to appreciate it, because I root for both teams. (People who disapprove of divided team loyalties are mostly people who never saw a vicious, lying drunk steal their native football franchise.)

From the Colts’ point of view, here was yet another key player lost to the senseless and still uncontrolled brutality of the game. From the Eagles’ point of view, here was a play where they got totally jobbed by the refs.

We might as well handle the human element first: What happened to Collie on the play was grotesque. I’ve been arguing for a long time now that people who draw a moral distinction between football and boxing are kidding themselves. Anyone who’d still like to argue otherwise should watch the video of Collie on his way to the ground—his arms flexing at a stiff, unnatural angle, the kind of spasm a body goes into when it has lost all contact with the brain.

This wasn’t a guy getting a little foggy, on his way to a mean headache, with the real damage quietly arriving somewhere down the road. It was sickeningly and obviously wrong, the way it’s wrong to see an unconscious boxer throwing punches while flat on his back. “Just absolutely frozen on the field,” the announcer said, as the rest of the play was petering out among whistles and a penalty flag.

And besides that, Lincoln Financial Field, how did you like the play? Well, as far as Philadelphia was concerned, on the football side of things, it was a travesty. There was nothing illegal about the hit. The NFL admitted as much when it declined to fine Quintin Mikell and Kurt Coleman, the two Eagles defenders who sandwiched Collie. Several Colts defenders agreed. Players aren’t always held liable for a helmet-to-helmet impact in a three-way collision. Sometimes a guy just gets bounced into harm’s way.

But it wasn’t even the helmet-on-helmet collision that drew the flag. Referee Carl Cheffers said that the penalty was unnecessary roughness for hitting a defenseless receiver.

Receivers and pass defenders alike can be confused by the NFL’s pass-catching rules, a tangle of narrow technicalities and legalese about “football moves” and “maintaining control.” This is how we get absurdities like Calvin Johnson being stripped of a game-winning touchdown because he set down the ball after obviously catching it.

There shouldn’t have been any rulebook problem on this one. Collie grabbed the ball, turned upfield, had taken two strides, and was beginning his third when the Eagles defensive backs hit him. The ball flew out of his numb hands long before he hit the ground: It was a catch and a fumble. It should have been the Eagles’ ball, in Colts territory—if not in the end zone, depending on how the runback unfolded.

Instead, in a moment of blatant incompetence, the officials blew the play dead, ruling that the pass was incomplete and that Collie had been hit too soon. If that were the correct call, it would mean there is no such thing as legal pass defense—if the Eagles defenders couldn’t have hit Collie when they did, they would have had to leave him alone till he split them and broke free, after which they could have tried to chase him down from behind (but not with a horse-collar tackle).

It wasn’t the correct call, though. The referees, seeing a badly injured player on the field, edited the actual events of the play out of their minds and made a call based on a new, imaginary sequence of events. Even after the game, despite unambiguous video evidence, they maintained that the hit came too early.

Isn’t it in poor taste to complain about bad refereeing on a play where someone got seriously hurt? The Colts’ Reggie Wayne thought so and was disgusted that the Eagles groused about the call. But if Wayne values his own safety, he should be upset about the officiating, too.

Cheffers and his crew are supposed to clarify and enforce the rules that protect the receivers. That—supposedly—is the NFL’s priority. The premise behind the fines and announcements is that there is a correct, safer way to play pass defense, if only the players would be willing to learn it.

Instead, the message that the Colts-Eagles crew sent was that the protections are a sham. If a defensive back is going to be judged by some made-up retroactive standard—by something he didn’t even do—then James Harrison is right. Reform is a farce, and the only responsible thing for a defensive player to do is to get out there, pop somebody, and let the zebras and the league suits sort it out.

If the NFL wants to convince me it’s serious about cleaning up the violence, the person it should fine or suspend is Carl Cheffers. The whole Collie incident had me wondering why I bother putting up with the NFL. Why should players get brutalized for this? And why am I watching something brutal if it’s also arbitrary, meaningless, and unfair?