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What constitutes a "clean hit"?

Rob Gronkowski is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Gronkowski, the new playboy of the New England Patriots, will find himself on the Injured Reserve after playing in only 7 games this season. It's been a frustrating year for Gronkowski and Patriots fans alike, to say the least. After dealing with back and forearm injuries throughout the offseason, preseason and regular season, Gronk's return was the biggest story in Boston since the Sox won the World Series. And now he's gone.

The Patriots need Gronk, plain and simple. 

Sure, they can win without him. The Patriots are 5-1 without Gronk in the starting lineup and 5-2 with him on the field. They can win.

The Patriots offense needs him, however. Take a look at the table below:

   Without Gronkowski With Gronkowski 
Points Per Game   20.8  32
Average Margin of Victory  7  8.2

Without Gronk, the offense is able to manage only 20.8 points per game. With Gronk, however, the Patriots are dropping 32 points per game on their opponents. They need Gronk's playmaking ability, as the Patriots haven't been able to really dominate an opponent all season (Steelers and Buccaneers notwithstanding).


The loss of Gronkowski can, and in all likeliness will, very well keep the Patriots out of the AFC Championship.

As I'm sure fans all over Boston (and the rest of the nation) are asking: "Why did this happen?" It's simple, really:

It's because of a flawed system implemented in order to keep players safe

In today's NFL, players can get fined for hitting too high. Players can get fined for hitting too low. Players can get fined for hitting too hard. Players can get fined for hitting a player they shouldn't be hitting. Players can get fined for throwing footballs in a game that is about throwing footballs. There's no limit to what players can be fined for, and the judgment committee is one employed by the NFL. If it seems like a conflict of interest, don't worry. It is. 

Operating under the guise of "player safety", the NFL is simply cashing in on what used to be the selling point of the game: big, bone-shattering hits. And it's been working, for the most part. 

In the past few seasons, the biggest hits we've seen have been the hits to players' wallets. Rarely do you see a receiver catch a pass in the middle of the defense and get clobbered for it without getting a fine. Rarely do you see a defensive end beat the blindside tackle and hammer a QB mid throw without getting a fine. Rarely do you see a linebacker fill the gap and drop the boom on a cutting runningback without getting a fine. 

Now we see hits like the one Ward threw on Gronkowski. 

The NFL is changing the game, and not for the better. 

Obviously, with the "sudden" emergence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the NFL would be looking to limit jarring hits to the head. After all, they'd like their former players to be able to live a normal life after retiring. As a former athlete and current human being with a brain, I respect and agree with that decision. Unfortunately, the rate in which they are fining players is causing defenders to go lower and lower in order to keep their paychecks. 

Let's get this straight: the hit on Gronkowski was a clean hit. I don't fault Ward for making a play. If the roles were reversed, I wouldn't fault Steve Gregory or Devin McCourty for the same hit on Cameron. That's what the NFL has forced defenders to do. If Ward hits him in the chest, he gets a penalty. If Ward wraps him up, Jackson most likely gets an unsportsmanlike conduct for hitting a wrapped-up player in the back. Ward does exactly what he's now been forced to do, he aims for Gronkowski's thighs.

Ward, after the game, defended his hit:

"When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen.This can happen if you have those types of situations. It's pretty much inevitable and they forced our hand with this one."

"I've been fined three times, and I don't like playing for free. If you go ask anybody in this league would they like to play for free? No. Repeat offenders, they're starting to suspend people for the year. I can't risk that. I won't risk that. And, I've got to play within the rules, point blank." 

The NFL is taking the right steps in order to prevent serious, and lasting, brain trauma. Unfortunately, they are also unintentionally starting a trend in ACL tears and other serious lower body injuries. By my unofficial count, taken from injury reports listed on NFL.com and media releases from each team's official website, there have been 51 players lost to ACL/MCL injuries to date in the 2013 NFL season, including preseason and training camp injuries. Nearly an entire NFL active roster can be filled with ACL injuries.

Something has to be done. Soon we're going to be seeing an All-ACL team at the season's end to rival the NFL's All-Pro Team.

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