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Flag for Tracy Walker helmet hit should have been picked up

Tracy Walker was flagged for unnecessary roughness after going low to defend a pass, but characterizing the hit as an unnecessary roughness penalty was a bit out of left field.



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Analysis by Rich Madrid

In Monday night’s week six game against the Packers, Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker was flagged for unnecessary roughness after going low to defend a pass from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to Geronimo Allison. Allison was injured on the play and did not return to the game but characterizing the hit as an unnecessary roughness penalty was a bit out of left field.

As of Wednesday this week, Walker still had not heard from the league office. [Update 10/19: A league source tells Football Zebras that Walker will not be fined for the hit.] Walker said, “I couldn’t have done nothing else better, legit, nothing else better.”

We’ll know more about a possible fine by the end of the week, but for now, let’s take a look at the mechanics of the play. In real time, it’s understandable why the flag was thrown. In the video below from the all-22 sideline angle, you can see the speed with which the play occurs and why an official might feel compelled to throw the flag. 

But there should not have been a penalty for unnecessary roughness or a hit on a defenseless player or helmet-to-helmet and there is nothing precluding the officials from conferencing after the flag and picking it up. There was helmet-to-helmet contact but it was incidental to the play. Walker did not lead with his head and was not going for a hit on the receiver, electing instead to intercept or break up the pass. Walker can even be seen attempting to turn his head to the side to avoid the helmet-to-helmet contact. 

After the game, per a pool report, referee Clete Blakeman, who led the crew responsible for the Monday night game, addressed whether or not the flag was warranted, and said “it is a strict liability for a defensive player. In this case, he may be going for the ball and not intending to hit the helmet, but when there’s helmet contact, it is a foul in that situation,” a very strict interpretation which is included in the discipline section of the players’ manual.

“Strict liability” applies to crackback blocks, hits on defenseless players, and roughing the passer. In the context of NFL rules, strict liability means that “A player who initiates contact against such an opponent is responsible for avoiding an illegal act” (Rule 12-1-3). None of those were what happened on this play.

His comments leave little room for possible flag pick-up and determination that the contact was incidental to the defender going for the interception. The defender’s body language and angle suggest as much, even as a last split second decision. The league operates under the mantra “when in doubt, flag it” but that does not preclude them from taking the time to discuss the mechanics of the hit, especially during the injury timeout. This is not subject to replay review.

Former referee Jon Parry said during the broadcast that even he thought that Walker did not “initiate forcible contact with a helmet-to-helmet, he was trying to make an interception.”

If Walker gets fined for the hit that netted him the unnecessary roughness flag, then the NFL should look into reviewing all possible targeting penalties instead of penalties like pass interference.

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