Are NFL Rules to Blame for Gronkowski’s Injury?

Brown safety TJ Ward claims the rules forced him to hit Gronk low.

Rob Gronkowski, Leon McFadden

Cleveland Browns cornerback Leon McFadden tries to tackle Rob Gronkowski. Associated Press

Rob Gronkowski likely out for the season after a hit to his knee Sunday resulted in a torn ACL and MCL injury, according to multiple reports. It never looked good for Gronk, who was carted off the field after yelling, “my motherf#@&#$g leg,” Sunday.

The loss is particularly painful because New Englandso anxiously awaitedhis return to a team short on receivers for the first six weeks of this season. (Thanks again, Hernandez.) And he was taken out not by an aggravation of the old injuries, but by a new one.

And yet, even if we didn’t expect to lose Gronk again so soon, players and the league’s critics are arguing that we should see knee injuries like this coming in general because of the rule changes designed to avoid head injuries. The penalties, fines, and suspensions levied on players who hit too high incentivize them to go low. It’s a point T.J. Ward, the Browns safety who hit Gronk, made himself.

“If I would’ve hit him up high, there’s a chance I was going to get a fine,” Ward said in the Boston Globe. (There was not flag on the play that took Gronk out.) “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.”

On the other hand, those rules are designed with player safety in mind in reaction to the growing worry over head trauma injuries that stay with players long after they leave the field. When Sports Illustrated asked a range of players in various positions to opine, there was a lot of ambivalence as players weighed the merits of protecting heads over knees. “I would much rather have a bang-bang hit to my head than have someone dive at my knee. I’d be surprised if other players though otherwise,” Dolphins Wide Receiver Brian Hartline told them. The one thing most of them agreed on, though, was this: football is a rough game, and there are going to be injuries no matter where you ask players to hit one another. Gronkowski provides a high-profile reminder of that.

Update: NBC is reporting that Gronkowski also got a concussion on the play, which if true, would make the whole knee-injury-versus-concussion debate look a little odd.