NFL teams are afraid to use cut blocks in practice. So why are they still allowed to use them in games?

Within minutes on Sunday night, the highlight burned a path through NFL social media accounts.

New York Giants promising defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux’s right knee buckled awkwardly, his leg jammed under a low block by Cincinnati Bengals tight end Thaddeus Moss. Thibodeau crumpled and rolled on the ground after the play, prompting reasonable suspicion of a terrible outcome. Anyone associated with football has seen how this can be done, often with a cart moving on the field and a season ending prematurely. And as is often the case in these cases, Twitter’s instant echo chamber reacted accordingly to the Thibodeaux clip, framing the moment through familiar vocabulary.

“Bromic.”

“Suspension.”

“Ban.”

At first glance, it was understandable. The game looked terrible. Moss dropped too low on his block and Thibodeaux’s knee buckled in a way that predictably stings when viewed in slow motion. The replay was tailored for a social media conversation in this NFL era, when a significant hit to the head or knees of a player sparks an instant controversy over either the players involved or the league-wide violence legislation. That’s exactly what happened Sunday night, as analysts and players (both current and former) weighed in on the argument.

Dallas Cowboys Star defensive end Micah Parsons tweeted: “I don’t know why interception is still allowed in the NFL!!” The other part of the tweet featured more salty language.

This was supported by former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, who tweeted, “It’s time to BAN THIS BLOCK. Period.”

Of course, there is another side to the debate.

Former NFL offensive lineman TJ Lang shot back to calls for retaliation against Moss, tweeting: “For a block that happens 10 times a game?”

Added free agent forward Marshall Newhouse“This. Is. Legal. And. Definitely. Not. Dirty.”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 21: Kayvon Thibodeaux #5 of the New York Giants stands up after an apparent injury during the first half of a preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at MetLife Stadium on August 21, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey .  (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) sprained his MCL after making cuts against the Bengals. The injury is expected to keep him out for 3-4 weeks. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The result a day later: Well, the result of the game was an MCL sprain for Thibodeaux that could keep him out for four weeks. Not good, but much better than fears that his season was over in an instant. The NFL also sided with Lang and Newhouse’s opinion, denying a penalty against Moss because his hit was legal under the letter of league law as it occurred inside the tight box both Thibodeau and Moss were facing when the hit came and Thibodeau wasn’t defenseless as he saw the block coming and dropped to deflect it.

It was a collision where one player went lower than the other at impact, exasperated by Thibodeaux’s leg that appeared to be stuck under Moss as he was hit.

Of course, that won’t stop the debate over intent and whether Moss was intentionally targeting Thibodeaux’s knee on the play. If Moss blocks his admission or can read his mind, there is little chance of proving his intent. It also can’t stop the discussion of chop blocks in general, which tend to be largely accepted by players, although also thoroughly hated due to the degree of difficulty and potential for injury.

The controversy over the block is not new. In 2016, when the NFL banned the use of steak blocks, some in the league quietly questioned why cut blocks weren’t also eliminated. It made sense at the time, given that cut blocks had long been hated since they were popularized by the zone management schemes of the San Francisco 49ers (and later the Denver Broncos) during the 1980s and 1990s. zone spread, so did the use of cut blocks. Especially as teams saw the benefits of denying the defense size and speed with a simply executed lower-end block that often left players flattened.

Even with the upside of the blocks — which can be extremely useful for offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends — teams still recognize them as dangerous to players’ knees and lower extremities. This is why NFL teams generally never use cut blocks in practice because it creates the potential for serious injury.

And like most things not practiced regularly, it puts players (often young defenders) at a disadvantage during games because they face full-speed cut blocks without having sharpened their instincts when handling them. Basically, young players in the NFL learn to cut block on Sundays. And it is their job to maintain and develop this information without the promise of any practical exposure to the same blocks.

There is some sensitivity advocating for the NFL to consider banning cut blocks. First and foremost, the league should stop ignoring the obvious red flag: If teams are too scared to practice cut blocks for fear of knee injuries, why are they still part of the game on Sundays? It stands to reason that if teams don’t practice cut blocks on their own players, then they create an experience gap that can lead to injury.

Of course, the response from those who benefit most from cut blocks (often offensive linemen) is that there aren’t enough injuries to support banning them. Sure, there’s the occasional Thibodeaux. Or worse, Logan Thomas, who missed eight months after suffering a season-ending knee injury last season. But proponents of cut blocks will say that they are necessary parts of patterns and that thousands of cut blocks occur every season without incident.

Where does he stand in this NFL? Well, it’s next to the data. Part of the reason horse tackles and chop blocks were eventually abolished was because the league studied these tactics and found data that supported the ban. Essentially, what the league needs to see is enough injuries to warrant removal. Unfortunately, this is part of the NFL’s cold calculation when it comes to player safety. Like a car manufacturer considering a major recall, one must show that there is enough carnage to make it necessary.

That’s not a good answer when you’re a hyperventilating Giants fan who probably envisioned the season lying on the turf next to Thibodeaux on Sunday night. But that’s where the NFL sits. And Giants coach Brian Daboll might have summed it up best when asked about the block on Thibodeaux.

“Well, those are the rules,” Daboll said. “If they allow it, you know, we also do it with tight ends and fullbacks coming back to the line of scrimmage. So we have to do a good job playing it. It’s a tough block, but whatever the rules are, those are the rules.”

They probably won’t change anytime soon, even for something that’s universally hated and completely unimplemented.

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