How player safety issues can be complex

The NFL will surely take a look at Sunday's incident between Richie Incognito and Antonio Smith. Brett Davis/US Presswire

Wednesday night, I sat down to write about Richie Incognito and Antonio Smith.

I’d repeatedly watched the late second-quarter play of the Miami-Houston game. I’d read one careful review of it and I’d decided it warranted a severe penalty.

I pounded out a post, "NFL can prove safety priority here," that went like this:

If the NFL is truly concerned with player safety, if it really wants players to think twice about injuring an opponent intentionally, if it really wants to make those messages resonate, then it should pause on the next stage of the Saints bounty story.

The two men who head the league’s football operations department, Ray Anderson and Merton Hanks, should be studying a play in the Houston-Miami game from opening weekend. And once they see Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito purposefully wrench Texans defensive lineman Antonio Smith’s ankle, the resulting discipline should serve as a loud example that a smaller play that intentionally injured – presumably with no bounty involved – also has no place in the sport.

Smith tried to lunge for a second quarter fumble that was lost by running back Daniel Thomas and recovered by Houston safety Danieal Manning. Incognito held Smith back from getting near the ball, but did more than that. He latched onto and twisted Smith’s ankle. It lasted long enough and was serious enough that Smith needed to kick Incognito in the head to get free.

We’ve heard from Smith on this-- he said Incognito was “a dirty player being let to play dirty.” We’ve heard from Incognito on this -- he said he never apologized for his style of “physical, hard-nosed football from snap to whistle.”

The league shouldn’t allow Incognito to sell this play in that fashion.

Sure, some of you will say, it was dirty. But that’s football. There is stuff like that happening all over the field all the time.

The days of explaining things away like that would seem to be over, and certainly Goodell wants them over.

Hanks, the NFL’s VP of football operations, or Anderson, executive VP of football operations, mete out discipline for such in-game infractions, which don’t have to have drawn a flag. This play did not. (Commissioner Roger Goodell is not involved in such discipline.)

Smith didn’t practice Wednesday with an ankle injury, presumably suffered on this play.

The league wants a safer game, and it’s created rules that protect players better. Smith wasn’t a defenseless receiver taking a hit over the middle. He was in a situation where he shouldn’t expect to be injured. It wasn’t an accident. He didn’t get rolled up on or take an awkward step or get bent awkwardly. He was on the ground, and a player trying to hold him back and intentionally hurt him.

It's absolutely obvious and if the league is serious about player safety, its eyes should be open on this just like they are on a too-high or too-low hit on a quarterback, a shot to a defenseless receiver or a hit that may have been partially inspired by a pay-to-injure program.

A bit later, though, I came across this post from ProFootballTalk. It strung together direct message tweets Incognito wrote to the site in his defense.

“Once the ball was fumbled I grabbed his legs to stop him from recovering the fumble. It’s clear that I wrap my arms around both his legs. I was trying to keep him from scrambling to the ball.

“After the ball was recovered I felt him kicking me. I was trying to protect myself. Kind of like a turtle in a shell. At no time was I turning his ankle. My intent was to keep him from getting to the ball.”

“...Obviously in a case like this I have no ground to stand on [because] of my reputation. There is no evidence of me trying to injure him. The reason I’m seen holding onto one of his legs [because] he started kicking me in the arm and neck the the other. I had both legs in my grasp. The fact of the matter is I’m laying on his leg. There is no twisting motion whatsoever. He is clearly kicking me in the neck. Talk about dirty?”

I put my post aside, deciding to sort through it in the morning.

And here’s my conclusion after sleeping on it.

We’d like things to be cut-and-dried. The film of the play isn’t focused on Smith and Incognito. They are in the periphery on TV and they are a small piece of the "All-22" coaches film.

While it’s easy to dismiss Incognito’s claims as spin based on his history of what can fairly be called dirty play, we can’t automatically jump to conclusions on this play based on that. He says his reputation will affect how this is judged and it will to an extent, I am sure. But what he wrote doesn’t seem outrageous to me.

Assessing this one with what we have is not so simple. Hanks or Anderson have a lot to sort through to make an absolute determination of what happened. They can’t see or know for certain.

And so this one play from 16 games worth of plays can be representative of two things:

  • The sort of intent-to-injure play the league so anxiously wants to wash out of the game.

  • The complicated nature of sorting through a play that could be in that category.

It’s not easily done. And I feel certain that out of 16 Week 1 games, there are a lot of other plays of a similarly complex nature.

We should know the league’s stance on this one by Friday afternoon.

Sometimes a player is forthcoming about league discipline after he gets overnight mail with details earlier in the week.

But typically on a play like this where the media is asking about a fine, a decision comes to light late Friday afternoon.

In that original post, I wrote: “When the verdict comes down on this one, it should be a statement (in dollars) that comes with a statement (from the NFL about how it won’t tolerate such things).”

Now hearing from Incognito, even knowing his comments could be crafted to cover his behind, I’m not so sure.

Are you? Will the league be? Should it be?