Should the Cut Block Be Outlawed?

Ian Williams injury

If I didn't know any better, I'd assume those who make the rules for the National Football League were bipolar. Fortunately, I do know better. Injuries will continue to happen in the NFL, no matter how much “player safety” rhetoric Roger Goodell and friends will undoubtedly continue to throw at us. Then you read a story like this one and start to wonder: with the way the rules are set up, are the players on the offensive side of the ball ever going to be at fault?

This is the story of the cut block, why it should be banned, and why it's just as dangerous as any other illegal hit in the NFL.

San Francisco 49ers' defensive tackle Ian Williams was lost for the season after suffering a broken ankle on September 15 following a Sunday night loss to the Seattle Seahawks. What led to this injury? A low block, or a “cut block,” which is perfectly legal in certain situations – as it was in this one. So what is cut blocking and when is it legal? Sporting Charts explains:

“An offensive strategy in which offensive linemen will knock down defensive players by hitting them at the knees. Cut blocking is legal as long as the defensive player has not already been engaged by another offensive player.”

That's right, you are allowed to take another person out at the knees as long as he is not being blocked by anyone else at that precise moment. It comes off as cheap, maybe even dirty, and certainly unsafe. Yet this has been part of offensive game plans for decades. The cut block is not to be confused with the crackback block or peel back block, both of which are illegal according to the NFL rule book.

The crackback block: “…an offensive player who is aligned in a position more than two yards laterally outside an offensive tackle, or a player who is in a backfield position at the snap and then moves to a position more than two yards laterally outside a tackle, may not clip an opponent anywhere, nor may he contact an opponent below the waist if the blocker is moving toward the position where the ball was snapped from, and the contact occurs within an area five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage.”

And yet, “If a runner (passer) scrambles on the play, significantly changing the original direction (broken play), the crackback block is legal.”

The peel back block: “When a player who is aligned in the tackle box at the snap moves to a position outside the box, he cannot initiate contact on the side and below the waist on an opponent if:

(a) the blocker is moving toward his own end line; and

(b) he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side.”

Let's quickly recap: you cannot clip a defensive player when you are lined up in a particular spot, when he is engaged with another offensive linemen/blocker, or if you hit him from the side or behind.

Yet you can go straight at someone's knees as long as you are facing the defensive player. A shot to the knees is a shot to the knees, and has no place in a professional sport, especially one that emphasizes safety as much as the NFL does.

What's the problem here? Consistency; the NFL lacks it. For comparison's sake, let's take a look at Ndamukong Suh's hit on John Sullivan, center for the Minnesota Vikings. This is only an eight-second clip, so pause it at the four-second mark to see where Suh goes to hit Sullivan. 

Suh Sullivan hit

He comes in from the side and hits him below the waist. More specifically, he hits him in the knee. It's clearly a penalty, which brings to mind two things:

  1. There was no need for Suh to cut there; all he had to do was throw a glancing block on Sullivan. A light shove would have sufficed.
  2. Common sense would indicate that a center in the NFL who has to reverse his field has no chance in an attempt to catch a linebacker in the NFL whose momentum is already carrying him forward.

That low shot on Sullivan negated a touchdown and earned Suh a $100,000 fine. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with this following video, though, and the “penalty” that the blocker earned from it. Let's take a look at a terrifying low block that was put on Brian Cushing (linebacker for the Houston Texans) last season. Cushing gets hit at the 5-second mark.

Slauson Cushing hit

What was the result of this play? Cushing was lost for the season with a knee injury. New York Jets guard Matt Slauson was fined $10,000 by the NFL but not flagged for a penalty for what “…the league later called a peel back block.” That's right, just $10,000.

The block clearly comes from the side, and I don't believe Cushing saw it coming. As previously stated, nobody should have a problem with Suh's $100,000 fine, as his conduct since coming into the league is the main reason a fine like that was handed down to him.

But on the other side of it, $10,000 for a hit just as bad, which turned out to effectively end a player's season? That seems a bit tame. Just remember, had Slauson come head on to Cushing, that would have been perfectly legal. I can't imagine the level of danger would have been significantly less, though.

To make matters worse, the action of Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Paul Fanaika this past Sunday hardly drew any attention, the least of which coming from the NFL front office. The Cardinals were playing the Detroit Lions and Fanaika made a lazy attempt well away from the play when he chopped at Suh's knees.

Watch the end of the play; there's no reason for it. Sure, Fanaika doesn't truly follow through with the block. Maybe he got scared and realized his stupidity, but that's not the point. Just because Suh can't control himself on the field doesn't make it okay for somebody to go out of their way to attack and possibly injure another human being. Anybody who thinks it is okay, who thinks there would be some sort of poetic justice in it – please, stop watching football.

A shot to the knees is a shot to the knees, and has no place in a professional sport, especially one that emphasizes safety as much as the NFL does.

Despite the dangers of it, the cut block doesn't appear to be disappearing anytime soon. The CBS report states “We brought in offensive line coaches, defensive line coaches, defensive linemen and linebacker coaches this year to the competition committee to talk about cut blocking, that very play (involving Williams) and those types of plays. We really came out recommending no change.” So, there's that.

Also, how does that make defensive players feel? Look at these numbers cited by Yahoo! Sports:

The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin compiled some fascinating statistics along these lines. In 2012, the NFL served players with $3,016,275 in fines. Of that total, $2.415,025 went to defensive players and just $591,250 to offensive players. This year, the disparity is even more extreme: $324,000 in fines in Week 1, of which defenses took $309,000.” The numbers say it all. Those on the offensive side of the ball can almost always do whatever they want, and there's something drastically wrong with that picture.

This is a league in which defenders can barely breathe on a quarterback (yes, a tap on the quarterback's head is a penalty), cannot hit an opposing player in the head even if it was legitimately unintentional (yay, defenseless player rule!), and cannot hit the quarterback below the waist if he is standing in the pocket. Yet those very same defenders will still have to worry about someone coming at their knees, because in certain situations, it's legal.

Please, Roger Goodell, tell me more about player safety.

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