This Football Hit Caused a Concussion. It Was Also Legal. Discuss.
Last Sunday night in Seattle, in the midst of a marquee matchup, the San Francisco 49ers began marching down the field in the first quarter, trailing the Seahawks 14-0. On Seattle’s 20 on third down, quarterback Colin Kaepernick found his one-time Pro Bowl tight end, Vernon Davis, on the sideline inside the 5. After the ball arrived but before Davis could fully hold onto it, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor jetted in and with full force used his shoulder to knock Davis’ chest, sending the ball flying irrelevantly away. Almost immediately, two yellow flags—from two nearby referees—flew in. The call: unnecessary roughness on Chancellor. The result: 10-yard penalty, first-and-ten Niners on the 10-yard-line.
There are two more things to know about the play. One is that Davis sustained a concussion. Two is that Chancellor’s hit was almost certainly not against the rules. Mike Pereira, the NFL’s one-time senior director of officiating who now works as a commentator for Fox, tweeted, “The hit turns out to be legal.” Cris Collinsworth, NBC’s color commentator, was even more stark: after looking at the replay, he observed of Chancellor, “Lowered his head. Hit him with the shoulder pad. Get the head out of there. If that’s not legal I don’t know what is. I think that is outstanding defensive football.”
Welcome to football in 2012: something is happening here, but we don’t know quite what to do about it yet. As we learn more about the link between hard hits and permanent brain damage, we are having trouble deciding exactly how much roughness is tolerable. Chancellor was just doing his job, in this case spectacularly well. The safety is supposed to be a team’s last line of defense. Since Davis was open and would likely have made a catch a few yards from the end zone, Chancellor’s only resort was to hit Davis hard enough to make him drop it, which is exactly what happened.