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Lunch Break, 11/5: Smith's Penalty on RGIII

A crucial call in last Sunday's game, Harrison Smith's unnecessary roughness call is still a hot button issue for many Vikings fans despite Minnesota securing their fourth win of the season.

View images of 2015 Pro Bowl candidate Harrison Smith, and make sure to visit vikings.com/probowl to vote for Smith and other Vikings players.

ESPN's Kevin Seifert dives into the call that referee Gene Steratore made and looks into the rule book a little deeper:

Play: Unnecessary roughness on Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith *
Referee: Gene Steratore *
* Analysis: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III attempted to gain a first down by running around right end on what appeared to be a read-option play. Seeing Smith approaching him from the front, and defensive end Corey Wootton from the side, Griffin began sliding 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage near the right sideline.*

Smith lowered his right shoulder to initiate contact, and Steratore penalized him for "a blow to a sliding quarterback's head," according to the post-play announcement.

There are several factors to unpack here; most obviously, a second look at the play revealed Smith at worst grazed Griffin's left shoulder. He did not appear to contact his head or neck. Steratore made a mistake of anticipation, one that isn't entirely surprising when you note that his crew entered Week 9 having called 17 unnecessary roughness or personal foul penalties, by far the highest among the NFL's 17 crews, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database. (The average was 6.7 per crew.)

But what interests me are two other questions: Was Griffin still considered a quarterback by rule at the end of the play? And what, if any, protection did the slide afford him?

First, the NFL confirmed last season that a quarterback running the read-option loses his "quarterback protection" and can be hit as if he were a running back. So it is difficult to understand why Steratore referred to a "sliding quarterback" when the league doesn't consider him one on that play.

Second, what you might not realize is that Griffin is still classified as a defenseless player -- whether or not he is a quarterback -- who had declared himself down and prompted an immediate dead ball.

"A player on the ground" is one of 10 definitions of a defenseless player, as listed in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a). And any player, not just a receiver, can declare himself down by sliding feet first. According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(d), "the ball is dead the instant he touches the ground with anything other than his hands or feet." The rule requires the player to start his slide "before contact by a defensive player is imminent," requiring officials to judge whether the defender had a reasonable chance to pull up.

Regardless, in this case the discussion is moot because Smith appeared to sail over Griffin with little to no contact. But had there been contact, to the helmet or anywhere else, Steratore's crew would have been justified in calling the penalty even though Griffin was by rule a runner and not a quarterback at the end of the play.

Seifert does fantastic job of detailing the call and the rule and fortunately for the Vikings it didn't come back to haunt them.

Quick Hitters

  • Fran Tarkenton: Vikings have a right to feel good at the bye week
  • 10 Vikings Bye Week Numbers of Note* *– via Craig Peters
  • Cross Flexed: The Week 11 Vikings-Bears game has been switched to air CBS rather than FOX, John Holler details the swap here
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