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The Cody Ford blindside-block struggle

Look, if y’all are gonna continue to “gotcha” the NFL on what you think are blindside blocks, let’s at least get to know the rule

During the Buffalo Bills’ playoff game versus the Houston Texans, fans became irate after Cody Ford was called for an illegal blindside block that few viewers felt was warranted. I didn’t make many new friends when I explained why it was the right call. A trend throughout the playoffs was to tag clips of blocks people thought were blindside blocks that went uncalled. In most cases they were not.

I’m not the kind of guy who will tell you to cut it out. Fan how you want to fan. But if anyone reading this is planning to continue the Cody Ford blindside-block spotting challenge let’s at least take the time to understand the rule.

The Rule

A common refrain I’ve heard is “I’ve been watching football for ____ years and I’ve never seen this called before.” Well, a big part of that is because the rule was changed this year to expand what constituted a blindside block. So those claims are probably right. Also, in 2018 and 2017 there were only 16 penalties of this kind called. Even after expanding the rule for this last season it only went up to 33. That’s one time fewer than intentional grounding, which we all know is pretty rare. It’s understandable then that fans aren’t used to seeing it. Although maybe Bills fans recall it from Week 2 when it was called against Dawson Knox.

That’s a really long paragraph that is necessary for this next point. For such a rare penalty that really is only one season old in its current form, nobody has any ****ing clue what the rule actually is. So here you go:

It is a foul if a player initiates a block when his path is toward or parallel to his own end line and makes forcible contact to his opponent with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder.

Note: A player may initiate forcible contact in an area between the offensive tackles and three yards on either side of the line of scrimmage (until the ball leaves that area), but is still subject to the restrictions for crackback and “peel back” blocks.

Put in more common terms, the “end line” is merely the end of the field. Your “own” end line is the one behind you. A blindside block then has to have a component of initiating the block when moving “backwards” or “sideways.” Note the word “and” between this and the next part. It’s only a foul if forcible contact is made with the helmet, forearm or shoulder.

There’s one nuance that is commonly missed, which is the note section. For purposes of the graphics you had to have known I was going to include, I’ll refer to what I call the “exemption zone.” Simply stated: In the area between the tackles and within three yards of the line of scrimmage, this penalty doesn’t exist. You can be called for other infractions but not this one.

Out of all of these elements there is only ONE subjective criteria for refs, which is the determination of contact being “forcible.”

Cody Ford’s penalty...again

Here’s the original GIF I made for my penalty recap.

I present this again because it emphasizes that, to me, there’s no question that Cody Ford’s block was “forcible.” Remember, “forcible” is the only judgment call. If you can’t entertain the notion that Ford’s hit had a good deal of effort put into it then you may as well quit reading now.

As for the objective criteria there’s no argument that he’s moving toward his “own end line.” There’s no question he hits with the shoulder and forearm. Here’s a new GIF to explore the rest.

It’s pretty cut and dry. Cody Ford is about seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Or four yards outside the exemption zone. Let’s take a second to remember that refs are human. Fringe cases for flags always exist and debate should be encouraged. Cody Ford is so far outside the exemption zone that his penalty is a very easy call. He’s basically in a spotlight.

Similar flags

Before I say anything else the answer is “YES.” Yes, the refs don’t always get it right. Yes I’m sure we could find plays that could have and maybe even should have been called under the same rule. But please find me a rule where that isn’t the case. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen some attempts at this but they’re nearly always quickly sunk under scrutiny of the rule. Let’s look at a Super example from this Sunday’s big game.

That certainly looks like it should have been called doesn’t it? There’s zero question on “forcible,” for example, so the subjective criteria is met. But how well does it hold up to the the objective criteria? Here’s the same GIF but with more pauses.

Do I think this one should have been called? Maybe. This is our fringe case and it’s a doozy. He’s moving toward his own end line and initiates a block. He’s out of the exemption zone. In full speed I think there’s some contact with his helmet. It’s harder to tell if that contact was forcible. The rule “and” means helmet contact isn’t prohibited, only “forcible contact with the helmet.” I’m not buying shoulder or forearm though.

So right away we’re far less certain about one objective criteria than we are with Ford’s penalty. And if we again recognize the fact that refs are human, it’s at least understandable that this one is harder to recognize based on this alone. Adding in those two lines, consider that the block is initiated when Staley is still within three yards—or at least part of him. Yes he’s too far to the side to be in the exemption zone, but again we at least have points to debate. In real time this is a far more ambiguous case than the one on Ford.

How were we supposed to know?

The NFL sends out officiating crews to each training camp, and one of their primary roles is to cover the rule changes in effect for the season and any other “points of emphasis.” This year included the blindside-block rule changes. Like is mentioned above, Dawson Knox was flagged for this in Week 2, so the Bills should have had extra awareness.

Finally, I heard the claim today that the NFL issued a video to distribute as well. I was unaware of this but it turned out to be true. I found it and, well, let’s take a look. The full 2019 rule change and points of emphasis video can be found here. The blindside block starts at about two minutes in.

That’s the very first example in the NFL’s distributed video. It looks an awful lot like the block by Ford.