Just days after announcing he was worried about his safety, Cam Newton took a pair of vicious hits that went unflagged. Sunday at the Rams, Newton was drilled twice with helmet-to-helmet hits. And according to ESPN’s Ed Werder, the league reviewed the plays and determined no rules were violated.
The first—and more egregious—hit came when LB Mark Barron came on a delayed blitz and did this:
The second hit was this Aaron Donald sack:
Yet unlike last week, Newton bit his tongue when asked about both hits after the game:
“I’m not worried about that,” Newton said, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review. “Just trying to find ways to win the football game. … I’m just happy we won the football game. It’s always fun to win.”
The basis for Newton’s complaints last week included a shot he took to the knee from the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell, which the NFL later acknowledged should have been flagged. On that missed call, however, NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino blamed human error—which can happen!—by telling Peter King that referee Walt Coleman mistakenly thought Campbell dove to the ground before striking Newton.
The blows Barron and Donald delivered on Sunday, however, seemed to be exactly the kind of hits the league seeks to punish. Here’s 12.2.9(c) of the rule book:
In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area (see also the other unnecessary roughness rules covering these subjects). A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture—for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer’s head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the passer’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or “hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.
Now, the crown of Barron’s helmet clearly connected with Newton’s helmet. And Donald’s facemask clearly made contact with Newton’s helmet. But see how complicated the rule is? All sorts of prohibitions on using the helmet or facemask in the passer’s head or neck area, yet none apply if those hits take place “in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.” It’s hard to see, by that reading, how either hit—Barron’s in particular, because he lowered his head and went right at Newton—could be chalked up to “incidental contact.”
The broader question is why these types of hits that aren’t drawing flags seem to keep happening to Newton. The best theory I can think of is that he’s big—Newton is listed at 6’5” and 245, or three inches and 30 pounds bigger than Mark Barron—and he frequently extends plays by escaping rushes and moving up in or outside the pocket. But outside the pocket, there is supposed to be a different set of rules governing what’s legal. And even inside the pocket, Newton isn’t getting the flags other QBs get.
Newton has already voiced his concerns all the way to Roger Goodell, and he came away feeling that Goodell at least listened. Yet here we are again. Maybe it will take a serious injury for him to draw a flag.
UPDATE: An extended back and forth down in the comments led me to discover two other points in the rule book that lend additional credence to the idea that the above hits should have been flagged. The roughing the passer rule, at 12.2.9(h), also protects quarterbacks from helmet-to-helmet hits even when they still have the ball (emphasis mine):
“A player who initiates contact against a passer is responsible for avoiding an illegal act. This includes illegal contact that may occur during the process of attempting to dislodge the ball. A standard of strict liability applies for any contact against a passer, irrespective of any acts by the passer, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact.”
Also in 12.2.9(h), there is this:
When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the Referee should always call roughing the passer.