I want to talk a bit about the Panthers. But first, a little history lesson.
In 2007, the Patriots were in a foul mood after the Jets accused them of spying on practices. When the season started, the Patriots took that bad mood out on the rest of the league with the single greatest season in NFL history.
Forget the 1972 Dolphins or the 1985 Bears, the Patriots would have beaten them both. New England started off 8-0, with every win by at least 20 points.
Randy Moss posted the best WR season in the history of the NFL with 1,500 yards and a whopping 23 TDs. Tom Brady had the single greatest season of any QB in history with 4,800 yards, 50 TDs and only eight interceptions.
Losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl had the Patriots fired up again and determined to destroy the league in 2008, too.
Then midway through the first quarter of the first game, Bernard Pollard dove into the left knee of Brady, and there went the entire season.
A team that went 16-0 in 2007 still had enough to go 11-5, but those Super Bowl dreams were shattered.
The New England fans were outraged. Sports broadcasters across the country bemoaned how unfortunate it was that the MVP of the league was taken out on a low strike.
So, the NFL passed a rule to protect quarterbacks from any more low strikes to the knees. Sure, this type of hit still happens, but at least the enforcement of the rule penalizes players and teams for the dirty tactic.
Now let’s look back at Thursday’s season opener in Denver.
On one pass play, a wide-open Kelvin Benjamin catches the ball, but can’t see that a defender is rushing toward him from behind.
The defensive back had a clear shot at Benjamin and could have blasted him in the back to try to jar the ball loose. He could have wrapped up Benjamin in the hopes that a teammate would strip the ball loose.
Instead, the DB took a running start and dove into the back of Benjamin’s left knee — the same left knee that cost Benjamin all of 2015. The same left knee that has been the talk of training camp.
The DB purposely sought the bad knee. Forget about the Panthers vs. the Broncos, if this had resulted in a new injury, the WR could have suffered catastrophic damage. This could very well have been the hit that ended Benjamin’s career.
All the talk Friday was about the hits on Cam Newton, and that is a concern, but to me the shot on Benjamin was the epitome of dirty play. Like Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict trying to wrench Cam’s surgically repaired ankle in October 2014.
As for Newton, I’m reminded of Shaq playing for the Lakers. Because Shaq was so big and so strong, the officials allowed defenders to get away with murder. Sure, Shaq liked to bull his way to the basket, but when players fouled him, they brought the lumber. Those hard fouls would have been called flagrant against any other player on the Lakers, but Shaq was big, so the refs just shrugged when he or his teammates complained.
That’s what I see here. Since Cam is bigger than the average QB, the referees didn’t give him the same protection they would anyone else.
It’s wrong, but I don’t know if it will change. It never did for Shaq.
While on the topic of unsportsmanlike play, I think it’s time the league did something about these last-second timeout calls.
I’m not just saying this because it happened to the Panthers Thursday night. I have been against it for years.
“Icing the kicker is just good strategy,” some would say, but I disagree. It’s trying to be sneaky, like putting Stickum on your hands to catch balls or spritzing Pam cooking spray on your uniform so offensive lineman can’t grab you.
I think a very similar rule should be put in place for the NFL and NBA. The opposing team cannot call a timeout when one team is holding the ball. Period, end of story.
I have seen instances when a basketball team tried to call a timeout, but the referee wouldn’t give it to the coach because the ball had already been passed to the free throw shooter. But I’ve also seen games where the man already has the ball when the whistle blows, and he had to give the ball up.
If you want to ice a kicker or a foul shooter, the timeout must come BEFORE the team has made contact with the ball.
If the center is already bent over the ball and getting a grip, then it’s too late to get a timeout.
Coaches could still try to ice a kicker by calling a timeout, but it would have to be done early enough that we never have to question whether the whistle came before or after the center hiked the ball. It would make that kind of play much easier to officiate, and kickers wouldn’t be making perfectly good kicks that are waved off because of sneaky tactics.
Russell Okung helped push the running back over the first-down line on fourth down. Pushing the runner forward is illegal and subject to a 10-yard penalty. So the Broncos should have been facing a fourth and 11 in the final quarter.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.