A debate emerged on Sunday regarding whether Jaguars safety Barry Church could have avoided applying an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Church, without question, could have.
This wasn’t the kind of play about which Steelers safety Mike Mitchell complained during the regular season, with a low throw forcing the receiver to lunge into the path of a tackler who was trying to apply a legal hit to the midsection. Gronkowski jumped for the ball, stretching his six-foot-six-inch frame — and giving Church a broad strike zone. Church opted not to take it.
He wasn’t facing the dilemma of applying an illegal hit to Gronkowski’s head or a legal (but dirty) hit to Gronkowski’s legs. The league expects, via rules enacted and emphasized before Gronkowski or Church entered the NFL, a hit to be applied below the head or neck area.
Then there’s the separate question of whether Church actually wanted to hit Gronkowski high. The bounty scandal of nearly six years ago (yes, it’s been that long) made taboo any talk of targeting certain players for physical incapacitation, despite the obvious strategic benefits of finding a way to keep the best players from the other team off the field. But would be naive to assume that modern players suddenly are unaware of the benefit of putting a player like Gronkowski on the sideline.
Last week, we mused (partially in jest) on PFT Live about the potential value of Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey baiting Gronkowki into a fight that would get both of them ejected. Church’s hit managed to get Gronkowski ejected, as a practical matter.
While there’s no reason to believe that Church was specifically hoping to apply a knockout blow to Gronkowski, the available evidence shows that he made no effort to avoid it when the opportunity arose. And he’ll eventually suffer the consequences for it, regardless of intent. Still, it’s hardly crazy to think that Church intended to do precisely what he did.