Danny Trevathan and the Two Cardinal Rules of Defense

There are two cardinal rules that every player on the defensive side of the football should adhere to. First, see what you hit and second, always play until the whistle blows. These rules apply at every level of football from Pop Warner to the NFL. Coaches teach the first rule for safety and for performance. Anyone who has watched enough football has seen a player lower the crown of his helmet and whiff on a tackle, they have also seen the unfortunate scenario of a man being carted off the field with a serious neck injury. We have also seen dozens of examples of players becoming heroes or goats depending on how they adhere to rule number two (see Don Beebe vs Leon Lett in SB XXVII).

On Thursday night, fans saw Chicago linebacker Danny Trevathan utterly fail to follow rule number one while strictly adhering to rule number two. As a result pundits and arm chair QB’s like myself are debating whether or not he should be suspended, fined, etc. After spending today reading the headlines, I believe that I stand in opposition to popular opinion on the play in question. While the play resulted in a significant, frightening, and tragic injury, I do not believe that the results were Trevathan’s intentions or that his hit on Davante Adams was dirty.

Those who feel that Trevathan’s hit on Adams was dirty and that he should be suspended, do so in part because they argue Adams was a defenseless player. I disagree with this premise. If Adams was indeed defenseless it was the referees’ responsibility to blow the play dead. This did not happen, likely because NFL referees have seen a number of improbable plays where an offensive player miraculously turns a sure tackle into a TD. While Adams forward progress did appear to be stopped, the whistle had not yet blown and Adams appeared to continue to fight for yards. We’ve all seen these situations where offensive players pile on and push the ball carrier ahead for positive yards or the offensive player breaks free (examples here and here). Trevathan, like every other defensive player in the league does not want to be on the receiving end of one of those highlights. So Trevathan did what all defensive players are taught: finish the play.

Had this play happened 40 years ago, there would be little outrage. This is in part because the game was legally more violent, but also because there was not instant replay and slow motion. Today we judge split-second actions slowed down to catch every millisecond in still-frame. Trevathan had less than half a second to react to play. He rallied to the football and unfortunately took his eye off a moving target resulting in an unfortunate instance of helmet to helmet contact.

I have watched the hit literally three dozen times over the past 24 hours from several angles and at various speeds and I remain convinced that this was not a dirty hit. While Trevathan approached and lowered his head taking his eyes off the ball carrier, Adams began to be brought to the ground lowering the level of his helmet putting it on level with Trevathan’s helmet as contact was made. I don’t believe this type of hit was intentional, but Trevathan deserved the flag because broke rule number one when he lowered his helmet. However, I do not believe he should be suspended given his history and the circumstances surrounding the hit.

Given the mounting links between football and chronic brain injuries and their impact on the health of football players post career, hits like this will be analyzed and scrutinized over and over. There are no easy answers for how the NFL and football leagues around the world should respond to these hits. I personally believe that as long as football remains a full-contact sport, that hits like this will continue to be unavoidable. Players are growing bigger, stronger, and faster, even when they fully adhere to the cardinal rules of defense, ugly hits like this will continue occur.