Church’s hit on Gronkowski was textbook illegal, avoidable

Getty Images

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.

76 responses to “Church’s hit on Gronkowski was textbook illegal, avoidable

  1. He was trying to lay a bone crushing hit to cause Gronk to drop the ball.
    He hit him too high and was penalized and will be fined.
    Why do es anyone assume he was deliberately trying to cause a concussion?

    I see players trying to hit hard and sometimes they hit the head and neck area. They get a penalty and a fine and if they do it again the fine gets worse and they can get suspended. Players learn not to do it again.
    That doesn’t mean that every hard hit that results in a penalty was a deliberate attempt to injure the target. Its football, and they are trying to get the receiver to drop the ball, and know that next time they will be hit hard.

    If you start suspending players for a hit that causes a concussion you will 100% force all hits to be directed at the knees. Defensive players won’t take chances they will get suspended.

  2. It was a dirty hit. Gronk is a big guy dancing the waltz with the defenders. I wouldn’t doubt if the Jags owner, Shahid Khan, had put out a bounty on Gronk. It looked like someone on the Jags did.

  3. First, I love Brady and will be the first to say he’s the best to ever play this game. But that said, any fine they give Church they should give the same to Brady. If we’re going to ask DBs to make microsecond decisions about where to hit a moving target then we be able to ask QBs to make better decisions as to where they throw the ball. Brady has been around long enough to know better than to throw deep over the middle into a safety like that. Offenses shouldn’t be able to create these dangerous situations and put all the expectation of “safety” on the DB.

  4. How does the player applying the illegal hit manage to stay in the game? Should be automatic ejection/suspension/fine.
    If not enforced it just becomes a gladiator contest with last one standing.

  5. This is a joke. Presumably Florio has seen an NFL game up close and in person. With the real, not slow-motion replay, speed of the action it’s so difficult for these defenders to hit a guy 1 foot too high while trying to break up a pass.
    I get why the NFL has to have these rules in place and realize they’re not going anywhere, but I’d say at least 95% of these hits are completely unintentional.

  6. If the NFL wants to stop spearing or illegal hits then take a regular season game check away for the first offense, two checks the second, etc..
    $25K(first offense)/$50K(second offense) fines mean nothing to someone making $10 million but $625,000/$1.25M will get their attention and the league would see a dramatic reduction in infractions and the resulting fines.

  7. It was evident that the Jags game plan was to play aggressively on defense with intent to intimidate the Pats offense. The hit should be considered with this as a backdrop. For the week preceding the game, it was clear that the Jags had a chip on their shoulder. The play in question was one play in the larger context. The mindset was in place before the Jags took the field. What was evident throughout this game was that the Jags defense had no intention of avoiding any hit at all. It’s football, but don’t try to change the context after the game and blame it on the officiating. That would be something more accurately described as adolescence.

  8. Look what he did when Gronk was down. He stepped over Gronk and swatted him with a towel. That’s gloating. And he said he was sorry?

  9. You’re calling the Church hit dirty based upon you’re feeling it was dirtier than what Mitchell does? Seriously?

    First off, I don’t disagree with the flag. Church when for a shoulder to shoulder blow (totally legal, and a way to deliver a hit that will silence “the game is too soft now” crowd). The timing was off and Gronk stretched out a bit and the result was a head to head. Again, totally deserving a flag. But Church didn’t launch himself, and he didn’t hit Gronk with the crown of the helmet.

    Mitchell on the other had rightly gets fingers pointed at him because all he does is launch himself crown of the helmet first at players. If I were to give him the benefit of the doubt, I could say that this is a good way to dislodge the ball. However, it also opens up the possibility of an ugly concussion (which is his goal on some hits). It also opens him up to injury (Shazier tackles the same way, and its why he’s paralyzed).

    Again, not arguing that the Church hit shouldn’t have been flagged, but when you say he was dirtier than one of the dirtier players in the game, it seems like you’re justifying this type of behaviour from other players when it should all be out of the game entirely.

  10. Initial contact was with Glasskowski shoulder. Then the follow through to the helmet, so no penalty. Glasskowski is so brittle anything will knock him out.

  11. I want those hits out of the game as much as anyone, but I do not think most are avoidable. The speed at which he was closing allows for very little ability to alter course. The one thing he could have done was aimed lower initially, but the possibilities there are missing entirely or blowing out Gronk’s knee. I think it was the most sensible tackle that unfortunately ended up with an illegal hit to the head.

  12. So, if the Jags want to whine about officiating, we can counter-whine that they derived unfair competitive advantage through Church’s i” Inadvertent” targeting of our 2nd most important player. I wouldn’t do that, but would, instead point out that the Patriots won, in spite of the targeting. Remember how the 2000 Ravens won the AFC. by knocking our opposing QBs McNair and Gannon in back to back games?

  13. stop crying wimpy pats- the illegal whistle that negated a Jaguars TD is what send pats to superbowl AGAIN on a bad officiating by foxborogh refs. They should not be there this year as many others before. Their dynasty is a cheating dynasty – nothing else.

  14. It wasn’t done on purpose. Gronk is way taller and church LEAD WITH SHOULDER so when Gronk stretched out for the ball he kinda ducked down a bit. The hit was unavoidable and wasn’t meant to hurt him.
    It was a textbook illegal hit but I bet he doesn’t even get fined for it. He even tweeted out and spoke with Gronk to make sure he was ok.

  15. Church applied a cheap shot and then lied about it. He didn’t drop his head or shoulder to hit Gronk below the helmet. It was a clear case of headhunting.

    I’m expecting a hefty fine. Church’s family must be proud of that play. Speaking of playing, great job for three excellent quarters of play. Too bad you played”not to lose”, rather than play to win in the fourth quarter.

    Will they ever learn? Gotta play to the final whistle, just to have a chance.

  16. Preach!!!

    Where are his arms on this ‘legal’ tackle? Down by his side just like all the defensive players arms are while they dish out the ‘big hit’ with their head and shoulder to an opposing player. Wrap the damn guy up, head up; see your target, and you have no issue. Tackle 101.

    Remember when Earl Thomas rocked Gronk, legally, with a devastating blow to the chest. Now that was a legal, hard hit.

    I’m sick of players saying the game is so fast and the target is so small now that the only thing left to do is take someone’s knees out or blow to the head. Stop acting like the head rests on top of the knees. There’s plenty of other body to tackle. After all, you’re the best of the best and should be able to figure it out right?

    Enjoy your post game / off season fine Church, you earned it.

  17. The NHL has a much better view on these. midline contact with not primary head contact is part of the game. Heads snap together on hits. The first defensive player to get paralyised from trying a rugby tackle in that situation should be the “oh….” moment everyone fears

  18. I think the issue here is the penalties that WERE NOT called against NE. Numerous PI and that oh so blatant holding on that run play for that first down to seal the game..

  19. Exactly right Florio. There are some delusional folks out there saying it was a clean hit and that it wasn’t even helmet to helmet. Most televisions have have a rewind button. Suggest those with blinders on use it to see the replay. No doubt, clear as day. Players that concuss a player out of a game with an illegal hit to the head should be ejected immediately and not allowed to return to play until injured player is cleared by Doctors to resume playing. However long that takes.

  20. There will always be players and former players defending these types of hits. Those people do the sport no good. I get that Gronkowski was suspended for a dirty hit, but players doling out rough justice is a serious mistake.

  21. That was actually the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the hit watching the game, that it was more strategic than accidental. Low class move.

  22. As a Pat’s fan I hated seeing Gronk go out, but that’s a significant accusation to make. Does Church have a history of cheap shots or intent to injure?

  23. I think it’s a lot more likely that he was trying to make a tackle and the foul was an unintended consequence. Saying “…it’s hardly crazy to think that Church intended to do precisely what he did.” are bold words and a feeble and impotent attempt at character assassination, not to mention cowardly journalism.

  24. Of course this was a planned hit to take Gronkowski out. This will be the new strategy to take out opposing playmakers. What Gronkowski did to the opposing Buffalo player was 100% wrong, but it was in the heat of the moment and that still is not an excuse anyway. But to intentionally take out your competition is a form of bountygate. Now is the time to show your integrity NFL. FIX IT!

  25. I appreciate it’s a bang-bang play, but it’s definitely a penalty.

    Yes Gronk is big, but that’s a huge torso to hit. At 6’7 you have to push up to hit his helmet.

    At the same time – I don’t know that he should get a fine or suspended. It was a football play and was handled correctly on the field.

  26. Rule change, defensive players leading with their heads, not only get penalized and fined, they must leave the field and stay off until the player they hit returns. Not only the rest of the game, but any future practices and games. He should miss the same amount of time that the player he hit does.

  27. I didn’t see the hit. I know how Buffalo feels about it. At least this hit happened during a play and not with an elbow drop of roid rage after the play.

  28. At first I thought it was dirty, and a takeout hit. Especially afterwards when Church was jawing and seemed to be celebrating taking him out on the bench.

    But afterwards, replay seemed to show he led with his shoulder, not the crown of his helmet, and Gronk’s downward momentum took his head down towards Church’s head when they collided.

    Church could have gone for the midsection,but he also was trying to break up the catch. And, you know, this is football and as much as I love Gronk that was a great play by Church to throw himself in front off that freight train and try to lay the wood in the AFC Championship game.

    If it were a few years ago, and it was Rodney out there laying the lumber, most people would be celebrating that hit. Let’s not be hypocrites.

  29. It was clearly illegal and at the very least a clumsy hit, but possibly dirty because Church made no effort to stay below the head area or keep his head out of the hit but kept it tucked down by the shoulder – and stayed high enough to hit the giant’s head. And as it was helmet-to-helmet, why wasn’t Church put in protocol?

    Salty Sherman tweeted how else can you stop Gronk without taking out his knees? Well, firstly, there is an awful lot of Gronk to hit from shoulder to knee. And secondly, go watch a rugby game to learn how to tackle. New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu was twice the size of everyone else and tackling him was a nightmare and always took at least two guys with the first merely trying to hang on for dear life until the 2nd & 3rd guy turned up… But that’s just it, these defenders aren’t trying to stay with Gronk and tackle but instead steam in at the sprint to make a hit – and if you’re just gonna do that you’re gonna have to aim for the middle of the guy and try to not lower your head.

  30. I don’t think any player would ever want to injure another player. They know it could easily happen to them as well. It’s very easy to watch and judge what could have been done from the sideline. All this coming from a Patriots fan. Get well soon Gronk!

  31. Hit wasn’t that bad. See that type of play several times a weekend.

    What was avoidable was the concussion gronkowski caused on a defenseless Tre White. THAT was avoidable.

  32. That hit was 95% shoulder and 5% helmet. A couple of inches lower and it would have been textbook clean. But, it wasn’t a couple of inches lower so it wasn’t clean and he was flagged for an illegal hit. Church was not aiming for Gronk’s head. If he was then he failed miserably because he almost missed it. The situation was handled properly. This is a non-story.

  33. So glad I got to watch guys like Ronnie Lott play football… Hit’s like Gronk took happened in pretty much every game in the 70s & well into the 80s..

  34. Huge problem. With concussion protocol, a hit like that almost certainly takes him out of the game for the price of 15 yards.

  35. He led with his shoulder. If he goes low (for the knees) he’s dirty. If it was a cheap shot he would have drawn a “yellow card” penalty. Not disputing the flag that was thrown in the slightest. It was unfortunate Gronk got hurt. The defense had pretty much taken him out of the game til that point already.

    Can we go through every penalty that was called (or better yet missed) during that game that afforded Brady the opportunity for a 4th quarter comeback? Because that was the most disgusting and one-sided display of “officiating” I have ever seen. Those refs did literally everything they could to help New England out. Not even remotely impartial. Zero New England penalties on offense AND defense.. Riiiiiiiiiggghtttttt…..

  36. Available evidence? You make a pretty poor case. You cite nothing other than your opinion that the hit was avoidable, only drawing reference to your own prospective musings from your podcast and two separate incidents involving different players from different teams. Every time Gronk gets hit low, people complain about players going for his knees. He gets hit high, people complain about concussions. There’s more righteous outrage over this than over the fact that Gronk only was suspended for a single game for his absolutely illegal hit earlier this year. He wanted to hit him hard. He absolutely did. But at least link the video and show us why you’re making this claim, instead of just saying “well, he jumped, and he’s big, so Church meant to hit him.” I mean, come on. Is that the standard for measuring intent? Would you be saying this if Gronk or the Patriots weren’t on the receiving end? You can argue whether or not Church meant to hit him, but to say this was textbook is a kneejerk reaction at best.

    If you’re going to make the claim that the hit was “textbook” illegal, at least back it up.

  37. If you watch the hit it is shoulder to shoulder mainly, another terrible call by the paid off refs along with that pass interference penalty called on that same drive.

  38. Gronk isnt crying. The team isn’t crying. Pats fans arent crying. The team followed the concussion protocol perfectly and without hesitation even though it meant removing a key player in a playoff game (was that an NFL first?) so there is really no beef here. Maybe move on?

  39. We had one playoff game largely decided this year when Travis Kelce was knocked senseless by a “legal” hit. On Sunday, we nearly had another. In both instances, the benefits of giving an opposing player a concussion far outweighed the consequences for the defensive player. The NFL and its mouthpieces can argue whether these hits were legal, dirty, avoidable, etc., but the larger issue is whether parents will continue to allow their son to play this game. This sport will go the way of boxing within the next 20 years if the league continues to ignore this issue.

  40. But Richard Sherman disagrees, so it can’t be true; he’s never wrong about anything! (note: *sarcasm alert*)

  41. It was a deliberate action.

    What is the harm of a 15 yard penalty if it means your opposition loses one of their best players.

    When rule changes are discussed hits such as this should count towards the allowable personal fouls prior to an ejection especially as it is much worse then spiking a ball in a players direction.

  42. Church launched himself like a missile to target Gronkowski’s head. He didn’t even try to wrap him up. it was a total killshot. Premeditated. The whole time his trajectory was going high. He’s a complete lowlife and you know this was their DB’s plan in the game. He deserves a huge fine and multi-game suspension.

  43. Anytime this happens the hit should be immediately reviewed and if deemed a targeted kill shot (like Church delivered) the offending player should be immediately ejected.The fine should be HUGE also and an automatic 2 game suspension. You want to stop this crap? Then lay that on dirtbags like Church and it will stop in a heartbeat.

  44. Any football player will tell you this was a deliberate attempt to “lay the big hit”.

    The fact that Church danced when Gronk was led off the field, injured, shows what a P U N K he is!

  45. The referees cheating to help the Jaguars was also avoidable.

    Everyone who was watching the game saw the body slam tackle 4 yards in the end zone on White after the Patriots touchdown. Which was then followed by a shot to the head after White stood up. That happened right in front of the referee who didn’t throw a flag.

    The referees also handed the Jaguars an undeserved fumble recovery in order to cheat the Patriots. Lewis was laying on the ground with the football pinned against his hip. He was in contact with the Jaguars defender so the play should have been over and no fumble.

    All football fans understand that a player doesn’t need both hands or to have the center of the football to be in possession of the football. We all remember when helmet catch (Tyree) pinned the football to his helmet. Football fans all remember when (Baldwin) pinned a football to his leg. The referees awarded both of them possession.

    But now when the referees are trying to cheat the Patriots they don’t let Lewis pin the football to his hip and award him with possession of the football. The football never hit the ground and was not in the air so it can’t be a fumble while Lewis has it pinned to his hip.

    Other than the automatic flags, which the Jaguars earned a false start, delay of game, an illegal shift, an unnecessary roughness penalty, the Jaguars were only called for 2 penalties requiring referee judgement in the entire game.

    Those 2 Jaguar penalties were for tackling one of the Patriots offensive linemen to prevent a QB sack and the other flag was when a Jaguar defensive back put his hands on Cooks to push Cooks out of bounds. Those were easy calls that are called against every team, during every NFL game.

    You mean to tell me that the referees couldn’t have found any Jaguar penalties that would require referee judgement in the entire game? The referees called one of those judgement penalties when the Patriots were flagged for holding during a kickoff.

  46. I already know all the Patriot fans are going to thumbs down, so go right ahead… but this article is pure opinion and gossip. Church has already flat out said he was trying to jar the ball loose vs. tackle Gronk. You can clearly see him using his shoulder to do just that.

    I will readily admit to being a Jags fan, but I’m also able to be an objective one. Personally, I think Gronk going out of the game was a bad thing for the Jags because I believe they over game planned for Gronk and it ended up hurting them. But that’s just my opinion.

    It was a hard fought game between two good teams and Tom Brady turned on the ‘Tom Brady’. That’s all there is to it. My only gripe is the quick whistles the NFL seems to be going to – and not just the Jags game. The last 4-5 weeks it’s bitten several teams and it sucks.

  47. NFL needs to teach and enforce tackling players in the chest/abdomen area. These brutal hits to the heads and knees are a relic of a different era. Knowing what we know about concussions and how devastating these injuries are to players, plus I think it’s best to keep players healthy. Reminds me of that Steelers Bengals game earlier this year. Teams definitely go after talented players, they might not be trying to one them, but they’re definitely going after them.

  48. All of the conspiracy theory cry babies here should take a page from their coach and move “on the Philadelphia”. I’ve never seen so much crying over unspilled milk.

  49. they came to play a physical, intimidating game

    was it avoidable, “yes”
    did he intend to injure him, “no”
    was it worth the 15 yard penalty “yes”
    is he a dirty player “no”

    sadly, Gronk paid the price of an unnecessary, illegal hit to the head.

    There should be an automatic suspension when the player is injured.

  50. JoJoPoon99 says:
    January 23, 2018 at 9:50 am
    All of the conspiracy theory cry babies here should take a page from their coach and move “on the Philadelphia”. I’ve never seen so much crying over unspilled milk.

    Your post is the definition of whining. You be the first one to show the example by shutting up and moving on and I am 100% sure everyone will follow you.

  51. billsfan66 says:
    January 23, 2018 at 7:16 am
    Hit wasn’t that bad. See that type of play several times a weekend.

    What was avoidable was the concussion gronkowski caused on a defenseless Tre White. THAT was avoidable.


    Tre white was not concussed.
    He cleared concussion protocol and was back at practice the same week and played the rest of the season.
    But don’t let that spoil your narrative.

  52. This has a fair & simple fix….. if the player knocks a player out of the game due to an illegal hit where a penalty is enforced, that player creating the penalty should automatically be removed from the game until/if the player is cleared to return……

  53. My takes is Church made an attempt at a hard clean shot but just gave it too much mustard and voila! Hats collide. Intentional or not, have to figure a way to let guys know this is serious so if you take a chance, you take a chance. Take a player out like that, you’re gone.

    I’m still looking for answers on the capricious enforcement of this protocol. So if Gronk decide to pitch a Cam like move and just refuse to e screened he could have kept playing? WUWT?

  54. sgruth33 says:
    January 23, 2018 at 1:00 am
    Before blaming Church for doing what defensive players are supposed to do, chastise Brady for putting his guy in a no win situation.

    Wait, wat? So let’s get this straight, ALL Qb’s should NEVER throw into any area where the receiver could be hit hard? Gronk was in the open field. Where exactly SHOULD Brady be allowed to throw?
    Serious question, did you just start watching football this weekend or are you just yanking chains? In all the years reading these pages I have never read something this absurd.

  55. Definitely an illegal hit. Maybe dirty, as the Jags were playing pretty edgy. Or maybe not. I really couldn’t say. I like hard hitting football and accidents do happen. I think its past time we moved on from this story. I hope Gronk is ready for the big game. Go Patriots!

  56. There is NEVER a reason to lead with your helmet. Never. It has nothing to do with the speed of the game, angles or timing. Just watch a game from the 70s or 80s and you will not see players using their helmets as weapons. The NFL should have never let spearing to become legal.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!