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December 11, 2016

Hit on Sproles not necessarily a 'cheap shot' – and that's the problem

Eagles NFL
121116_Sproles-Everett_AP Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia Eagles' Darren Sproles, left, is destroyed on an illegal hit by Washington Redskins' Deshazor Everett.

There's no fighting in football – at least there's not supposed to be any – but if there ever was a reason for guys to throw down, it was Deshazor Everett's hit on Darren Sproles in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 27-22 loss to the Redskins on Sunday.

You shouldn't be able to hit someone illegally and walk away with the only repercussion being 15 yards and an earful from your coaches. That doesn't seem fair.

The Eagles had every right to react the way they did. To their credit, the officials actually did a pretty good job of separating the players and not overreacting by penalizing more players for defending their teammate while he remained down, surrounded by Eagles medical personnel.

Luckily, Sproles was not seriously injured. Although he did not return to the game, he tweeted out later Sunday evening that he is "doing good."

Everett, who told the media he didn't get a chance to talk to Sproles after the game, said he didn't see Sproles call for a fair catch and simply mistimed what he thought was an otherwise clean hit. 

“I thought the ball was right there in front of me when I went for the tackle. But, unfortunately, it was not," he said. "The ball hit me in the back as you can tell. Football is a split-second game and unfortunately, I did not make the right decision. But I was just giving my full effort to go out there and make the tackle.”

But immediately following the game, several Eagles players voiced their disapproval of Everett's hit, with a few going so far as to call it a cheap shot, perhaps because on his earlier hit that sent Brent Celek to the locker room.

The Eagles were still upset about the play after the game. Left tackle Jason Peters called it a “cheap shot” and said he had to remind himself not to get thrown out of the game retaliating against Everett. Everett had knocked tight end Brent Celek out of the game earlier in the second half on an illegal blindside block that was penalized, something tight end Zach Ertz referenced after the game.

“Obvious cheap shot. Darren was trying to field the ball, the guy hits him before the ball gets there,” Ertz said, via “I’ve honestly never seen the guy before, didn’t know who he was going into the game, and if that’s how he wants to make a name for himself, then so be it. I thought it was B.S. Darren didn’t even have the ball and the guy tried to take his head off. He tried to take Brent [Celek]’s head off, kind of knocked him out of the game, too. I don’t know who that guy is, but yeah, I thought it was B.S.”  []

Other members of the Eagles, including head coach Doug Pederson, were less critical of Everett's hit.

PEDERSON: “They obviously got the call right. I thought it was definitely a defenseless player, hit to the head, all that. The call was definitely the right call.”

MALCOLM JENKINS: “I’m not sure if the guy did it intentionally or not, but obviously it’s something that you never want to see, especially to one of your teammates. Obviously, in the moment, we thought it was a pretty cheap shot. We don’t know the guy’s intention, but it’s something that you never want to see happen to one of your teammates.”

CONNOR BARWIN: “I thought it was an illegal hit.”

BRANDON GRAHAM: “The hit on Sproles – I understand in that moment, you want to make a play. I’m going to let the league handle that. There’s nothing we can do now. Sproles is okay, I’m happy. ... I don’t see it as a cheap shot. I see it as he was down there running, helmet to helmet, stuff happens in the game. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Interestingly enough, the three players quoted above, unlike Peters and Ertz, play on the defensive side of the ball, meaning they have a better idea of just how close some of these timing plays can be. They've all likely been the victim of a late hit penalty that they just couldn't avoid, one where the play ended at some point between when they committed to making a tackle and when they actually made contact.

This wasn't quite that simple, however. Almost immediately following the play, I tweeted the following:

After struggling to watch the hit a few more times – and hearing Everett's apology* – I no longer blame the 24-year-old for what he did.

"My condolences to him and you never wish that to happen to anyone.”

I blame the NFL.

If a few tenths of a second were the only difference between this being a great hit or an illegal one, then the problem is not with the players but with the game we're watching every Sunday (and Monday; and Thursday; and sometimes on Saturday too).

It's not the brutality I find so disturbing. Boxing, MMA, hockey – they're all violent games as well. It's the way the NFL slaps helmets and pads on these guys and then somehow passes it off as a safe, family-friendly game. At least with the other sports I mentioned, there's no doubt that what we're watching is dangerous.

Instead, the NFL – the commissioner, the owners and the league as a whole – has done everything it can to try to convince us otherwise. 

They say they have the players' best interests in mind. That they care about player safety. That they're taking steps to remove some of the most dangerous plays from the game – as they've tried with kickoffs. 

They say they're doing everything they can to protect the players, but they're failing both on the field and in retirement. They say these things, all while withholding information from the public and trying to sway medical research in the league's favor, because what they're really protecting are their wallets.

Otherwise, why wouldn't the rules restrict guys like Deshazor Everett from getting anywhere close to Sproles until well after he had fielded the punt? What about increasing the punishments for such hits? Or why not just take the punt return out of the game entirely, making every one a fair catch by default? 

Because that would hurt the product – and the bottom line – just as much as admitting that former players are dying as a result of playing football for a living.

Instead, Roger Goodell and the owners wash their hands of these violent delights with a wink and a smile. 

And we let them, even after seeing far too many examples of the violent ends that follow.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin