- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The debate started in the first full week of preseason games when Houston Texans rookie safety D.J. Swearinger delivered a shot to the knees that ended the season of Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller. No one was surprised when Keller sent out a tweet after the Gronkowski season-ending ACL injury that said, "something has to be done about these low hits!!!"
While there is no doubt the competition committee will discuss low hits during the offseason, I don't think there will be any change. Safety is at the top of the committee's agenda every year. But every committee member knew the game was going to change when the rules were changed to try to eliminate hits above the shoulders.
It's not as if the committee wanted to trade concussions for ACL injuries, but something had to give when defensive players lost the ability to hit the head or neck areas. Eliminating the low hits would change the strike zone for a defender so much that defenders would be at a complete loss trying to tackle.
Believe it or not, Swearinger is a big part of that discussion. In college, he had a reputation for making high hits that could lead to concussions. In his first game as a pro, he showed the ability to alter where he was going to make a hit. If you can't hit high, you are left with only the chest, the midsection and the knees. He made the proper adjustments.
Tackling isn't an exact science. Defenders are coming at full speed trying to figure out where to make a tackle on a player who might be bigger. Ward was playing safety in the middle of the field. Had he let Gronkowski get behind him, the Patriots would have scored a touchdown.
He made the choice to hit low knowing he would be fined if he hit high. Unfortunately, Gronkowski became a victim of a physical sport.
The elimination of the low hit to go with the elimination of the high hit would be an injustice to defenders. Such a change would be the equivalent of adjusting the strike zone of a pitcher in baseball so he would throw balls instead of strikes 60 to 70 percent of the time.
Plus, there would be no guarantee injuries would stop. You would have more cracked ribs or damaged hips. Football is a game of collisions. Narrowing the location of the hits isn't going to soften the impact. Different areas of an offensive player's body would suffer the damage.
The committee will discuss it, but I don't see a change.
From the inbox
Q: Could the increased injuries in the NFL lead to teams eventually emphasizing versatility, with players developing abilities to play multiple positions? It would seem to be a logical long-term development for teams to return to the days when, say, a guy like George Blanda could be both a place-kicker and a backup quarterback.
Brian in Fishers, Ind.
A: That has happened to a certain degree. You have tight ends morphing into fullbacks. Corners are playing safety. Defensive linemen flop into linebacker roles in the 3-4. But there still has to be a starter. It would be hard to think that a nonkicker can develop into a kicker. Place-kickers have to be more than 80 percent accurate these days. Sacrificing quality for versatility would be a step back for a team. That would be the same for a punter. The league needs to expand the active roster. If that happens, it wouldn't be out of the question for a third quarterback to be available for special-teams duty.
Q: Does the NFL have an active anticorruption department? With the tens of millions of dollars that are bet on NFL games every week, I would believe that players, coaches and officials are approached by "undesirables" to influence the outcomes of games. I am just curious whether the NFL takes an active or dynamic approach and investigates "abnormalities" when they pop up.
Larry in San Diego
A: The NFL hires former FBI agents to work in security. If they found tips that suggested the presence of abnormalities, they would investigate. The credibility of the game is vital to the success of the NFL. This is something the league takes seriously. The problem is always finding those issues. The league is always looking.
Q: What are the odds that we could see the elimination of intentional grounding? I think the quarterback should be able to spike the ball at any time, making him "down" where he threw it (if it doesn't make it past the line of scrimmage). If he takes this option, then the defense is credited with a sack. This would allow us to know the difference between a passing QB and a running QB. Also, we would eliminate unnecessary hits on a QB. Am I dreaming or do you think it is possible that we can see this one day?
Eric in Milwaukee
A: You might not be dreaming. Anything that would further protect the quarterback is always on the table in the NFL. I don't see it happening soon. A quarterback has the ability to spike the ball and just have the incompletion. Grounding prevents him from having the best of both worlds. If a quarterback is still attempting to throw and make a completion, he should have some guidelines that reward the defense. To be called for grounding, the quarterback has to be within the tackle box and he has to get the ball to the line of scrimmage. It would be grossly unfair if the quarterback faked a spike, allowed the defensive player to slow down, and then fired a pass.
Q: I don't remember you weighing in on this, but many commentators like to suggest that because Tom Brady leads the head-to-head matchup 10-4 with Peyton Manning, that Brady must be the better quarterback. Very seldom do you hear much stated regarding the overall quality of the teams that surround them, particularly that Brady usually had the superior defense to support his efforts. Furthermore, it should be noted that when two teams of similar caliber meet, the home team is expected to win. The first season Manning and Brady played each other, the Colts were not very good (6-10) and lost both games to the Patriots. The following 12 games were split eight home games for Brady and four for Manning; they each won twice on the opponent's field and Brady leads 8-4, which fits the expected split based on home games. If winning the head-to-head matchup is relevant to the debate regarding who is superior, expected outcomes based on home-field advantage must also be considered. With that consideration, we find two very similarly capable QBs and should shift our focus to the recognition that we have the pleasure of watching two of the all-time greats.
Jonathan in Sugar Land, Texas
A: That's a good point. But the book on Brady-Manning is still in progress. Brady has the regular-season edge and the edge in Super Bowl rings. But Manning should lock up home-field advantage in the AFC pretty soon, and there would be that home game for Manning you are talking about. Plus, he has a great chance to get his second Super Bowl ring. As Yogi Berra used to say, "It ain't over 'til it's over." Manning could still win a Super Bowl or two in his final years in the league. Stay tuned.
Q: Why are people in Pittsburgh calling for Mike Tomlin's job? The majority of players and coaches abuse the line rule. And for those in Pittsburgh calling for his job, they seem to forget that Bill Cowher did the same thing, purposely, and was cheered. ... Seems like a double standard.
Timothy in Inglewood, Calif.
A: Many fans react like that when the season goes bad. Many fans believe there are simple solutions to problems. Fire the coach and you fix the problem, they think. Replace the quarterback and go to the next quarterback, they think. It's not that simple. The Steelers' defense has become less talented, and that's understandable. Years of drafting low in the first round hurt their ability to replace Pro Bowl defensive players with potential Pro Bowl defensive players. The offensive line has been a mess for three years. The Steelers aren't firing Tomlin. Sure, there will be changes on the staff, but that's the normal thing that happens after a bad season. Now the attention goes to next year's draft.
Clayton's mailbag: Rob Gronkowski's injury revived the debate on low hits, but don't expect any changes.