I cringed and started worrying after the third or fourth time I saw Jon Bostic's highlight-reel hit last week. Would the collision between Bostic, the Chicago Bears' rookie middle linebacker, and San Diego Chargers receiver Mike Willie surface as the first example in 2013 of the NFL's continued emphasis against head-to-head contact?
When you watch the replay in the video above, you see Willie reaching for a short slant pass and begin the process of catching it when Bostic launched a perfectly-timed hit to dislodge the ball. If you slow it down frame by frame, you see that the top of Bostic's helmet made contact with the bottom left side of Willie's helmet. No penalty was called.
In sum, it's a play we've all seen countless times in NFL games. Many of them have been celebrated by NFL Films. But in 2013, and forever more, it is the type of contact the NFL wants to at least appear to be discouraged.
The NFL instituted new rules this year barring contact with the crown of the helmet, but in this case, it used one of its previously established rules to hand out the fine. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 (b2) renders this action to be illegal: "Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body."
We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether Bostic lowered his head or if his head was simply tilted downward in a form tackle position when contact occurred. You can also question whether "defenseless position" was originally contemplated for a receiver reaching for a pass when both feet are on the ground. In this case, Willie took two steps before Bostic hit him. It wouldn't have been outrageous to call the play a catch and fumble.
But as we've discussed before, that ship has sailed. The conversation is over. At last count, more than 4,000 former NFL players are suing the league for concussion-related issues. Head safety is the league's top priority, legally and otherwise, and you can expect more aggressive interpretations of its rules moving forward.
Briggs later tweeted his disgust that the NFL fined Bostic but that the low hit on Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller, which ruptured multiple knee ligaments, has gone unpunished. So goes the world we live in, like it or not. It's cheaper, for both the league and its players, to take out a player's knees than to hit him in the head. There is no going back now.