NFC West penalty watch: Hit on Williams

No play from Week 16 caused more confusion in the NFC West than this one.

San Francisco 49ers rookie Kyle Williams slipped and fell onto his right shoulder during a kickoff return with 6:38 remaining in a 19-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

Williams slid and righted himself in one quick motion, winding up on his knees, facing backward.

Two Seahawks players, fullback Michael Robinson and linebacker Adrian Moten, slammed into Williams from opposite sides, knocking loose the ball and leaving Williams with a concussion.

2011 Penalties: Unnecessary Roughness

Referee Ron Winter assessed a 15-yard penalty against Seattle, explaining that Robinson had struck Williams with a helmet-to-helmet blow.

I've heard from fans of both teams. Predictably, Seahawks fans tend to think officials erred in penalizing Williams for helmet-to-helmet contact, while 49ers fans tend to feel as though Seattle was taking cheap shots. Those lines of thinking miss the key issues, in my view.

All parties could have handled the situation better, starting with Robinson and Moten.

As noted following the New York Giants-Arizona Cardinals game in October, the rulebook calls for an official to "declare the ball dead and the down ended when a runner is out of bounds, or declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance."

Williams was kneeling and facing his own end zone when Robinson and Moten struck him. He had slammed one hand against the ball, clearly frustrated that his return had ended prematurely. He was no threat at this time.

At this point, the whistle should have blown. If one did, I did not hear it at the stadium or on the Fox broadcast.

But as the rules state, unnecessary roughness includes "running or diving into, or throwing the body against or on a ball carrier who falls or slips to the ground untouched and makes no attempt to advance, before or after the ball is dead."

That is what happened in this case. Yes, Williams was about to get up, but he paused while kneeling and facing his own end zone. He made no move to get up and run. The Seahawks should have tagged him down. There was no need to slam into him with full force.

Winter, the referee, emphasized helmet-to-helmet contact as the reason for the penalty. Replays showed what I would consider to be incidental, even minimal, contact between the helmets. The foul should have been for blasting a player who had slipped to the ground untouched and was making no effort to advance the ball.

Williams could have protected himself better by realizing the whistle had not blown and defenders could be charging toward him, misreading his intentions. But he was not at fault here. If officials were so sure Williams had declared himself down by "falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance the ball," then why no immediate whistle?

Robinson has not shown himself to be a dirty player. This was his first penalty of the season and his third for a personal foul in 86 career games. He and Moten obviously thought Williams was fair game. They wanted to force what would have been a pivotal fumble.

Frequent scuffling marked this game, but no 49ers players rallied to Williams' defense after Robinson and Moten converged on Williams. There were no indications any of them took offense to the hits. There was mostly confusion.