The block on Kayvon Thibodeaux wasn’t illegal, but was it dirty?

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The most scrutinized play of the preseason led to the injury of Giants’ rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The immediate reaction to the block in Bengals vs. Giants was almost unanimous: It was dirty. At the very least it felt dirty, and especially unnecessary in a preseason game where nothing really mattered.

Thibodeaux sealed the edge on a routine rushing down, planting his feet and lowering his shoulder in anticipation of the running back cutting back to him. Then, tight end Thaddeus Moss came in from the side, lowering his shoulder and dropping down — making contact with Thibodeaux just below the knee in a cut block.

Initially the injury looked disastrous, with the cart being called out, before the rookie walked off under his own power. It appeared the Giants had dodged a bullet, but later evaluation showed a sprained MCL, which will sideline Thibodeaux for 3-4 weeks.

The discussion wasn’t really about the block’s legality, and more whether it should be allowed in the NFL. That’s really the issue at play. By NFL rules Moss did nothing wrong. There are three applicable penalties for blocks below the waist, and none applied in the case of Moss blocking Thibodeaux.

  • The Chop Block: Which is the act of blocking a player below the waist while they’re already engaged with another blocker — i.e. two on one.
  • The Low Block: Which only applies on kicking plays.
  • The Peel Back Block: Which applies if a defensive player is moving towards his own goal line, and/or the player is blocked from the side or behind.

In the case of the Moss block on Thibodeaux he approached from the front, nobody else was engaged and he chose to block low. It looked terrible, and we’re conditioned to seeing flags fly on hits below the waist because of quarterback protection penalties, but it was absolutely not illegal.

So, was it dirty? That’s where this gets murky. A play being “dirty” is entirely subjective, and generally as far as I’m concerned there are plenty of things that happen in the NFL which are dirty, but not illegal. Players practice how far they can push every rule in the book and try to straddle the line, which someone can definitely interpret as being against the spirit of the game — but it’s woven into the fabric of it.

Mike Golic Jr. and Geoff Schwartz, two former linemen with extensive football experience both shared their take on the play.

While on the other side of the fence we had Cowboys’ linebacker Micah Parsons defending his NFC East rival and calling for cut blocks to be eliminated from the game.

To those with the most skin in the game, the Giants, they were measured about it all. Head coach Brian Daboll said the block wasn’t illegal — turning the injury into a need for greater coaching.

“Got to do a good job playing it, that block, but rules are the rules.”

We’re left with a few lingering questions, regardless of legality:

  1. Should Moss have gone that hard in preseason?
  2. Was a block necessary at all?
  3. Should veterans pull up against rookies on plays like this?

When it comes to Thaddeus Moss’ involvement it’s unfair to say he shouldn’t have made the play in preseason. As it stands he’s 4th on the Bengals’ depth chart at tight end, and legitimately fighting for a roster spot. In order to get noticed he has to make plays, and making a big block against a top draft pick is a way to prove his worth. That block could be the difference between making the 53 man roster, and being left off — and we can’t discount how much these games mean to players, even if fans write them off as being pointless.

The second question has a somewhat similar outcome to the first, but there is a difference. If we look at the play we can see the running back initially targeting Thibodeaux’s side of the field, before cutting back to his left. Moss did not see the runner change direction, so as far as he knew the play was moving to the right side of the field, and he blocked his man.

The final element is tough. There will be strong arguments from proponents of these “welcome to the NFL” moments, but there is a human element to this too. Just because you can embarrass a rookie doesn’t always mean you should, especially with a technique that (albeit legal) has a high chance of causing injury.

These debates about one play make something abundantly clear: It’s time to adjust the rules. The NFL’s desire for offense has boxed in defenders to such an extent that they have to be cognizant of how they’re hitting players on every down, ensuring they’re not going high or too low — and it has drastically changed football. It’s only fair to apply greater limitations to offensive players when it comes to blocking so we can preserve the careers of every player in football, not just those scoring touchdowns.

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