We saw this coming in August 2019. It reared its head again in a big spot on Thursday night, with millions watching the Saints host the Cowboys.
With Dallas leading 13-10 in the third quarter and the Saints facing first and 10 from their own 21, the officials called New Orleans tight end Garrett Griffin for an illegal blindside block, as he crossed the formation to pick up blitzing Cowboys defensive back Jayron Kearse.
The foul wiped out an 11-yard gain and resulted in an 11-yard penalty, a 22-yard swing that put the Saints at first and 21.
Three plays later, the Saints punted. Four plays later, Cowboys running back Tony Pollard went 58 yards for a touchdown. And it was then 20-10 and the lights were almost entirely out.
Troy Aikman of Fox immediately described it is a “terrible call.” The NFL has kept its head low and its mouth shut about it.
But that’s the rule, bad as it may be. Check out our story from the preseason of the first year in which the rule was put on the books. As we explained at the time, the inaccurately-labeled rule “doesn’t carve out situations where the opponent sees the hit coming,” and “it prohibits a blocker from blocking with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder while moving in any direction other than toward the opponent’s end line.”
It’s just a bad rule. It’s a rule created by non-football people looking for ways to reduce the number of big hits in a given game, potentially as part of the broader quest to finish the push for 17 games and to commence the effort to expand to 18.
When it happened in 2019, the NFL posted the clip on Twitter and defended the call. This time around, it’s publicly crickets.
Privately, the league will describe it as a “judgment call,” and will explain that Walt Anderson and Perry Fewell will review the film from all angles, and then get back to the club on any questions it may have.
Here’s a question? When else has this actually been called in the last two-plus seasons?
The league previously admitted that the rule was improperly applied in a Bills-Texans playoff game, because the hit applied by Buffalo tackle Cody Ford was not “forcible.” Last night, Griffin applied a helmet-to-helmet hit to Kearse, even though he other (as he should have) used his hands to make the block. Without the collision of helmets, it’s not a foul.
Again, it’s a bad rule. It’s poorly named. It’s surely not aggressively enforced, or we’d be writing stories like this more frequently.
The likelihood that it isn’t regularly enforced becomes a huge part of the problem. As one person with extensive NFL experience observed last night, “If that’s a penalty, they’ve literally missed over 20 flags a game, because that was a common pass pro[tection] block.”
The fact that it was called last night is precisely the kind of thing that makes people think the fix is in, even if it isn’t. The best approach for the league, then, would be to fix the blindside block rule.