It's already fairly obvious what should've happened after Joe Flacco was knocked senseless by Miami Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso on Thursday night, but it generally takes the NFL a few years to grasp the obvious.
Every sane human who saw that hit knows that Alonso should've been ejected from the game. And if the NFL was employing the NCAA's targeting rules, the play would've been reviewed from every camera angle and Alonso would've been escorted to the Dolphins locker room to await further punishment from the league.
Instead, Alonso got the same in-game punishment that a defensive end often gets for swatting at a pass and accidentally slapping a quarterback on the helmet, which is about as silly as the league's long-standing inability to clearly define what is and isn't a catch.
Actually, he got less. Since the play took place at the Dolphins' 11-yard line, the in-game cost to Alonso and his team for trying to scramble Flacco's brain was half the distance to the goal, or … wait for it … 6 yards.
The NFL is finally moving in the right direction when it comes to protecting players from the long-term effects of repeated concussions, and it might even get this one right when it decides whether to fine or suspend Alonso for that ugly hit. But the immediate message the average fan took out of Thursday night's nationally televised game was that it was officially viewed as a garden-variety case of unnecessary roughness.
And that was reinforced by the debate among the commentators and the halftime panel about whether it was really a flagrant hit.
It was, and you didn't have to be Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira to see that.
Clearly, we're going to be more sensitive to this issue around Baltimore in the immediate aftermath of a serious injury to a popular local star – especially after the Ravens lost top receiver Mike Wallace to a concussion last weekend. But once you get beyond the critical health and safety issues, this is also about the widely divergent interpretation and enforcement of the rules by NFL officials.
Every football fan knows that there are certain crews that never met a penalty they wouldn't call and others that are more likely to keep those flags in their pockets. That's just the human factor, and for the most part, that's OK.
The league's contact rules for defensive backs, for instance, require some nuance or there would be a defensive holding or illegal contact penalty on virtually every play. But the rules designed to protect players from the long-term effects of head injuries and the discipline that goes with them need to be clear and aggressively enforced.
The NFL treats its rulebook like the Internal Revenue Service treats the federal tax code. Every time there's a change meant to simplify interpretation of a rule, the rule gets longer and more complicated. Hence the continuing and embarrassing confusion over what constitutes a legal catch.
The rule governing how quarterbacks should be hit when they go into a protective slide, however, is pretty simple. They shouldn't, unless the contact is unavoidable and – even in those cases – the tackler must not make contact with the head.
Alonso said afterward that Flacco's slide was late and that he had to commit to the hit, an explanation that was endorsed by some commentators. But it's obvious from the video replays that Alonso made contact with Flacco's head so close to the ground that he'll have a hard time convincing anyone outside of Miami that there was no intent.
It's certainly within the wide realm of possibility that he's telling the truth. Alonso is not known as a dirty player and spoke earnestly about the play after the game, but this wasn't a reasonable-doubt situation. The hit should've been subject to video review — but wasn't — and he should've been ejected from the game.
Instead, Twitter and the Ravens message boards were awash with fans complaining that if he had knocked Tom Brady senseless, the officials would've personally escorted Alonso out of the stadium in handcuffs.