Last week, Patrick Chung (of my beloved New England Patriots) laid a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts III during the final drive of a tight game. New England took a 15-yard penalty for the dirty hit, but Shorts was done for the day. A few plays later, Chung made the interception that ended the game.
Football has its hands full with the head-injury crisis, as every week brings more lawsuits and more damaged former stars. The NFL has instituted new medical regimens to protect concussed players, and made refs crack down on the most dangerous hits. But it hasn’t considered an obvious step that would deter dirty play: a penalty box.
Like the NHL, pro football should force teams to play a man down after a flagrant foul—on top of the usual 15-yard penalty and automatic first down. There are a few ways a NFL penalty box could work: The penalized player could sit out until the next first down (which could be just a single play), or until the next change of possession, (which could be 15 plays), or a set number of plays. The NFL could even borrow the red card from soccer: Not only is the dirty player thrown out of the game, but his team plays a man short for the duration. This feels like a nuclear option to me, but if nothing short of it stopped this kind of hit, why not give it a try?
I’d stay non-nuclear at first though: Cut the team to 10 players on the field for a set number of plays, maybe two for a minor flagrant hit and five for a major one. As with an NHL power play, if the man-up team scored, the penalty would end.
The advantage of an extra man would be enormous in football. Most NFL offensive schemes are designed to achieve a man advantage in a particular part of the field. The penalty box would guarantee that advantage.
The penalty box would undoubtedly need tinkering. Would it work if the offensive team committed the flagrant hit and went a man down? Would it create a too-big advantage, requiring other rule adjustments? As the NHL icing rule is suspended during a penalty, would the NFL need to put in rules making the passing game tougher (tighter intentional grounding rules, or tweaks that make pass blocking harder, so quarterbacks have less time to target a downfield receiver)?
That kind of rebalancing toward the defense would probably have to be hashed out over several seasons, and it might get messy. It seems worth it, though, because the protections in place right now for receivers aren’t working.