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Breaking down the call: Was A’Shawn Robinson’s ‘body slam’ illegal?

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Is there even a rule against it?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Many Detroit Lions fans were calling foul on the refs after the loss to the Dallas Cowboys on “Monday Night Football.” While the Cowboys were actually called for more penalties (eight for 47 yards), the Lions’ penalties were more costly (five for 62 yards).

No penalty came under more scrutiny than the odd personal foul penalty on Lions defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson after he tackled Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Robinson met Elliot at the line of scrimmage, twisted him around, lifted him up and then brought him to the ground. Here’s a look at the tackle:

The referees docked the Lions 15 yards for a personal foul penalty for “picking up the player and throwing him to the ground unnecessarily,” according to the referee.

The call drew immediate ire from the commentary crew at ESPN. “Or what some may call a tackle,” Sean McDonough said immediately after the ref made his call. “That’s a joke. That’s terrible,” added McDonough after a few seconds of silent disbelief.

Let’s break down the call and see if this was truly a joke.

What does the rulebook say?

Unnecessary roughness is one of those all-encompassing rules that officials will tell you “you know it when you see it.” The rulebook literally says examples of the foul are not limited by what’s specifically listed in the rulebook itself.

However, the rulebook does outline several specific cases in which unnecessary roughness should be called. For example, diving into a player on the ground, using the foot or leg to strike an opponent, etc. There is nothing specific in the rulebook about picking up and throwing down a player, but I believe this is the rule in play [Rule 12, section 2, article 6, footnote f].

There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to:

(f) throwing the runner to the ground after the ball is dead

This is the rule in question, because in the official’s announcement of the penalty, he prefaces the infraction with “after the play was over.” So the call on the field here was that Robinson threw the runner to the ground after the ball was dead. That is against the rules, but is that what happened?

Historical precedent

Slamming an opponent to the ground has been called as personal foul penalties on multiple occasions. It happened to an offensive lineman on a pass rusher here. Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson got called for it here. But in both of those examples, the play had indeed been finished. In the case of the offensive lineman, the ball was already out of the quarterback’s hand, so the shove to the ground was indeed unnecessary. Jackson’s foul came well after he had already stopped receiver’s forward progress.

The closest example I could find to Robinson’s case was this tackle, that not only drew a flag on Demario Davis, but he earned himself a fine, too:

In this case, Davis’ tackle looks almost identical to Robinson’s. He stops the player’s momentum and after a quick beat, twists and lifts Darren Sproles before taking him to the ground.

So, this isn’t an isolated case by any means. A tackle like Robinson’s has been called for personal foul penalties often. But let’s dive in a little deeper.

After the play?

My main rub with this call is that it was declared to have occurred “after the play.” Let’s take a look at the play again from multiple angles:

In this instance, there is no moment between when Robinson stops Elliott’s momentum and when he begins to bring him down by lifting him up. It’s all one tackling motion. And as for the “body slam,” Robinson clearly doesn’t use his full force in slamming Zeke to the ground. In fact, most of the impact with the ground is absorbed by Robinson himself as Elliott lands mostly on top of him.

Conclusion

This isn’t a rare call from the NFL. Any violent-looking play that involves a player getting picked up and thrown to the ground tends to draw a flag. But in this case, I thought it was a poor call. This play was not dead yet. Ezekiel Elliott is a hell of a back and is extremely tough to haul down. Even if you have his forward progress stopped for a moment, that typically doesn’t mean the play is over with Zeke. He keeps his feet moving and drives the pile several times a game.

That’s why Robinson lifted Elliott off the ground. This is actually a common legal tackling technique. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll teaches this exact maneuver called the “hawk lift tackle:”

The purpose of this tackle is to make sure the ball carrier no longer has leverage to move forward. It’s a smart way to stop a guy like Elliott in his tracks so he, nor his offensive lineman, can push forward for a few extra yards.

Simply picking up a player and taking him to the ground is not a penalty. Doing it after the play, or after forward momentum is stopped, is. In this instance, it didn’t appear to me that the play was over. Therefore, I deem this call wrong.