The Saints were putting together a strong, sustained drive and were threatening to score with the ball 3rd & 5 at the 49ers seven yard line. Saints quarterback Drew Brees took the snap with 8:56 remaining in the quarter and threw a dump screen pass to Thomas, who caught the ball at the five yard line. Thomas then turned toward the end zone, but was met with a hard hit from 49ers safety Donte Whitner at the two yard line. The hit caused Thomas to fumble the football, which was recovered by the 49ers. The 49ers would go on to win, 36-32, with an Alex Smith touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 14 seconds left in the game after a back and forth duel in the final minutes.
Writers, fans and the like have pointed to this play as a game changing play that completely turned the dynamics of the game. This very well may be true, however it is no fault of referee John Parry and his crew.
Replays do indeed indicate that Whitner made contact with Thomas' helmet with his own helmet. This type of hit is colloquially referred to as 'helmet to helmet' contact. With the crackdown by the National Football League on dangerous play and concussions, many people could not believe this hit was not flagged. Many fans were calling it a "blown call" or "horrible call." Others were stating that "at no time is helmet to helmet contact legal." This type of hit had to have been illegal and blown by the officials, right? Wrong!
Yes, Thomas was clearly hit in the helmet by Whitner's helmet, but this contact was legal and correctly ruled as such by Parry's crew. The rule pertaining to the contact in question that was incorrectly believed by many to have been violated is NFL Rule 12-2-9. The rule states, "it is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture."
There are two very important elements to the rule, beginning with "initiat[ing] unnecessary contact." What is considered as unnecessary and prohibited contact is defined in Rule 12-2-9b. There are two types of prohibited contact under 12-2-9b(1 and 2):
"1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; and
(2) Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body"
On this particular play, Whitner did indeed initiate a forcible hit on Thomas' head with his helmet, as well as lowering his head with, what could be considered, "forcible contact" against the opponent's helmet in the forehead region. Despite the fact Whitner appeared to make the tackle with his arms as well, this does not negate the prohibited contact made. Only incidental contact is given an exemption from being penalized under 12-2-9.
The contact Whitner initiated is not exempt from penalization, however his actions are not applicable to 12-2-9 or subject to penalization because of the other element of the rule. The contact is not prohibited unless the contact made is "against a player who is in a defenseless posture" (otherwise known as a defenseless player). Part a of Rule 12-2-9 gives eight specific positions that are considered defenseless, which are:
"(1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;
(2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player;
(3) A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;
(4) A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;
(5) A player on the ground at the end of a play;
(6) A kicker/punter during the kick or during the return;
(7) A quarterback at any time after a change of possession, and
(8) A player who receives a “blindside” block when the blocker is moving toward his own endline and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side."
Thomas is not a quarterback or a kicker, nor was in an act of passing, returning a kick, on the ground, receiving a "blindside" block, or in the "grasp of a tackler." Clearly, this quickly eliminates the chance of Thomas being in seven of the defenseless postures, and only leaves 12-2-9a(2).
Thomas was indeed a receiver on this particular play, catching a screen pass from Brees. A receiver is considered defenseless when he is attempting to catch a pass, but can also be considered to still be defenseless after they have completed a catch. Thomas completed the catch; however to be considered defenseless in this instance, one would have to lack the time to protect oneself or not have become a runner. Thomas had caught the ball at the five yard line, turned around towards the 49ers end zone and ran to the two yard line before being hit. He not only had requisite time to protect himself, but also had established himself as a runner by turning around, moving upfield and running for a few yards prior to being hit by Whitner. Since Thomas had become a runner with a chance to protect himself, he could no longer be afforded the protections of a defenseless player or be considered in a defenseless posture. This being the case, the contact by Whitner was not a violation of 12-2-9 and cannot be penalized.
When spectators and participants witness a collision and contact of this sort, they immediately react. If one's team is on the receiving end of such contact, they want the contact flagged. Helmet to helmet contact is dangerous and not something to be desired. At the same time, football is an inherently dangerous game with brutal hits, especially at the professional level. The NFL has cracked down on dangerous play, especially for those players in positions that are defenseless. The league does not consider a runner to be defenseless and still allows for certain helmet contact to be made by defensive players.
The job of the game officials is to properly enforce the rules that are established by the league. Credit must be given to John Parry's crew for properly enforcing the rules. Line judge Rusty Barnes not only correctly ruled that Thomas had fumbled the ball, but he, field judge Scott Edwards and back judge Billy Smith all witnessed Whitner's hit on Thomas and ruled the hit to be legal. The fumble by Thomas was costly for the Saints, but nowhere close to what it would have been for the 49ers had the hit been incorrectly penalized.