Following a series of helmet hits on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during this season’s kickoff game in Denver, the NFL has levied fines on both Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall and safety Darian Stewart. The two defenders have been fined $24,309 and $18,231, respectively. Marshall was not penalized by Gene Steratore’s crew for his hit on Newton, but Stewart was flagged for his act, although Stewart’s foul offset with an offensive foul on the play. A third helmet hit by Von Miller on a sack of Newton was neither penalized nor fined.
Focusing in on Marshall’s hit, the linebacker left his feet and launched toward Newton’s head as Newton tossed a shovel pass to a teammate. The flag was not thrown for roughing the passer, which will result in a downgrade for Steratore, whose key is the quarterback position in this situation. According to Rule 12-2-9(c):
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.
With regards to the hit by Stewart, seen above, Newton was out of the pocket and had just thrown a pass at the time of the contact. The roughness foul on Stewart came to no avail for Newton and the Panthers, as his pass was not thrown in the area of an eligible receiver and never reached the line of scrimmage. Intentional grounding was also called on the play and offset the roughing the passer penalty.
Both Marshall and Stewart made forcible contact with Newton’s helmet, and Newton was in a passing posture when both hits were delivered. These are, by rule, illegal hits on a defenseless player.
Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino underscored the defenseless player rules on NFL Total Access (video):
It’s basically the posture will dictate his protection. So if he’s in running posture, ball tucked, advancing it as a runner, he’s treated like a runner and he doesn’t get special protection. If he’s in a passing posture, whether he’s inside the pocket/outside the pocket, he’s still going to get passer protection — head, neck, crown to the body — those types of protection. So it’s the posture that dictates the protection.
You can be scrambling in the pocket/outside the pocket, tuck the ball and then bring the ball up to throw and throw a forward pass. So you go from a runner to a passer again, so it can go back and forth.
Von Miller’s hit — unflagged and unfined — came as Newton was being wrapped up for a sack. This is similarly a defenseless posture, as Newton is unable to avoid or brace for contact. The league office felt there were mitigating circumstances, as Miller was shedding a block, and theoretically wasn’t delivering a helmet hit under the rules. This is a judgement call by the referee, but it seems that this is graded as a “support” of the call, essentially neutralizing a ding on the covering official. It also likely factored in as to whether Miller was going to be fined.
These fines coincided with the day that the NFL launched the “Play Smart, Play Safe” initiative, investing $100 million toward concussion research, or $3.125 million per team. This initiative combines advanced technologies with medical research to help investigate significant causes of concussions and their long-term effects on football players.
Ben Austro contributed to this report.
Image: Gabe Christus/Denver Broncos