FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was fast, it was violent, it was dangerous and it was ugly.
And it was a choice Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward said he made as he saw New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski running with the ball a step ahead of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in the third quarter of the Browns' loss to the Patriots on Sunday.
“It was a decision I made to make a tackle on a big man,” Ward said.
Ward’s decision was clearly influenced by the rules and emphasis the NFL has stressed to players over and over: Don’t hit high, near the head. It’s an admirable goal as the league tries to eliminate concussions, but it also results in defensive players being fined and/or suspended for hits that simply look close to the head.
So Ward hit Gronkowski low, and the timing of the play meant that Ward’s shoulder drove into Gronkowski’s right knee as Gronkowski planted to run.
Gronkowski’s knee bent in a way it is not supposed to bend, and he flipped in the air before landing. It was evident immediately that Gronkowski had a serious knee injury, believed now to be a torn ACL.
Ward thought he hit Gronkowski in the quad and didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until 20 seconds later, when a teammate told him the tight end was down. Ward took a knee.
“I honestly prayed for him,” Ward said.
And when Gronkowski was carted off, Ward approached him to shake his hand.
“My intention is never to hurt anyone,” Ward said. “That’s not what this game is about. That’s not how I play. I hate to see guys go down with any kind of injury. I just wanted him to know, whether he accepted it or not, it wasn’t an intentional hit. We have to play this game. We have to play the way that they force us to.”
Which means avoid a high hit. Browns defensive back Jordan Poyer can vouch for that fact. His hit to the shoulder of Julian Edelman after a late touchdown was flagged as unnecessary on a defenseless receiver. The resulting penalty helped New England’s field position when the Patriots recovered the onside kick.
Had Ward made a similar kind of hit, he’d have risked being fined, especially if Gronkowski had ducked or flinched.
“It’s kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “It’s a decision you have to make, but you have to follow the rules at the same time. Gronk’s a big dude. He’s not small by any means, so already he has that height. It just makes it difficult. I made a tackle. Unfortunately he got hurt. If he would have got up, there would have been no discussion about this right now.”
There used to be an unwritten rule among players never to hit an opponent in the knee or from behind. But those unwritten rules have been trumped by the new ones from the league. Ward predicted last season that the emphasis on eliminating hits to the head would result in more low tackles and knee injuries. He repeated that position on Sunday.
“When they set the rules, everyone knew what was going to happen,” he said. “This can happen if you have those type of situations. It’s pretty much inevitable. And they force our hand with this.”
Ward could have tried to hit Gronkowski at the waist, but he’s giving up seven inches and 65 pounds to the tight end. If he tries to make a high tackle and misses it, he loses his job.
“I’ve been fined three times,” he said. “And I don’t like playing for free. You can ask anybody in this league, would they like play for free? No. ... [And] I can’t risk [suspension]. I won’t risk that. I’ve got to play within the rules.”
And the way the rules are written, there seems to be nothing illegal about a hit like Ward’s.