Ward acknowledged he made a choice to tackle Gronkowski low and said he did so because if he went high he ran the risk of a fine and, since he’s been fined before, a suspension.
The play angered many in New England, who thought Ward’s hit was dirty. In former times it might have been, as players had an unwritten rule not to hit a guy in the knee from behind or the side. Ward said he went for Gronkowski’s thigh, and the hit was worsened by the timing -- Ward caught Gronkowski as he planted his right knee with his leg extended.
Some New England fans thought Ward’s hit was a response to Gronkowski throwing his arms in the air on the previous play and drawing a pass interference penalty on a ball 10 yards over his head.
The Patriots came back with a similar route, but Ward was deep safety on the play and not covering Gronkowski man-to-man. The hit was low, fast and it turned ugly in a hurry. But Ward said he would never try to hurt another player, that he is a 200-pound guy trying to bring down a 265-pound guy running pretty fast.
To Ward, he had no other choice if he wanted to make the tackle.
The national and local discussion included the following:
Longtime Browns writer Tony Grossi of WKNR, ESPNCleveland.com points out that earlier in the season Tashaun Gipson had taken out Bills quarterback EJ Manuel with an open-field hit to to the knee as well. “When NFL rules-makers gather in March to consider what they have wrought from efforts to make the game safer, they can pretty much run a Browns’ defensive highlight reel,” he wrote.
A huge crowd of Boston reporters talked to Ward after the game, but the media in Boston did not take after Ward. Longtime Patriots writer Ron Borges wrote in the Boston Herald that Ward “did nothing wrong.” He add: “In fact, he did exactly what the suits in New York insist is the right thing by avoiding the kind of high hit that has resulted in Ward being fined three times and threatened with suspension.”
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi regularly writes a feature for ESPN-Boston answering fans’ questions, and one was related to whether Ward’s hit was dirty. Bruschi answered in part by saying: “Even in today's NFL, I can see how people may think that hit was dirty. But I look at it this way -- what are defenders supposed to do now?”
Greg Bedard covered the Patriots for the Boston Globe before he joined the MMQB (Monday Morning Quarterback) on SI.com. Bedard called for rules changes outlawing hits to the knee, but added he was not buying Ward’s explanation: “There are plenty of other places to tackle opponents below their heads that don’t involve ending someone’s season. The players are using it as an excuse when accused of delivering a dirty hit.”
Tom Curran of CSN New England also has covered the Patriots for some time. He joins Bedard in saying that low hits to the knees should catch the attention of the NFL in the offseason when rules are addressed, then wrote: “The chance of T.J. Ward bouncing off Gronk and the tight end continuing downfield would have risen with every inch Ward raised his target zone. But the odds of Gronkowski having his knee destroyed with the kind of hit Ward chose to deliver in that situation were off the charts.”