That was the case with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday, when a big, legal hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward tore two ligaments in Gronkowski's knee, ending his season and making him questionable for the start of the 2014 campaign.
Some people may say that Ward's ferocious low hit on the monster tight end was a cheap shot, but Ward will tell you that the NFL's rules are what forced him to dive at Gronk's knees. "When [the NFL] set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen," Ward said, defending his devastating hit. "This can happen if you have those types of situations. It's pretty much inevitable, and they forced our hand with this one. I've been fined three times. ... Repeat offenders, they're starting to suspend people. ... I can't risk that. I won't risk that, and I've got to play within the rules, point blank."
As the NFL has gotten more and more strict regarding hits to the head, an increased number of knee injuries has always been assumed. Sunday, however, was one of the first times that we've seen a superstar suffer a catastrophic injury as a result of a player specifically aiming low to avoid a flag, fine, or suspension. Ward is a big hitter - that is his identity as a safety. His pass coverage is decent, but he tries to make an impact by popping receivers with big hits, dislodging balls from their hands to force incompletions and fumbles. Despite being a fraction of Gronkowski's size at 5'10'', 200 pounds, I would not put it past Ward to go shoulder-to-shoulder with Gronk on a hit in the open field, but Ward claims that the rules prompted him to go low.
If the NFL were forced to choose between players suffering knee injuries and players getting knocked out with concussions, they would choose the former every time, but when defenders are afraid to aim for the upper part of the body, ball carriers are going to get their knees hacked at. Sunday was one example of a player trying to adjust to the NFL's rules that did not go well, but the NFL is willing to risk those knee injuries in an attempt to avoid the long-term damage caused by concussions - plays like the one between Gronkowski and Ward will not change the NFL's stance on hits to the head.
When speaking of the hit, Ward also pleaded that he had no ill-intentions when hunting down Gronkowski on that play. "My intention is never to hurt anyone. That's not what this game is about. That's not how I play," Ward said. "I hate to see guys go down with any type of injury. I just wanted him to know - whether he accepted it or not - it wasn't an intentional hit to injure him, but we have to play this game the way that they force us to, and unfortunately it [resulted] in an injury for him."
Reports on Monday morning confirmed that Gronkowski suffered tears to his ACL and MCL, while he also reportedly suffered a concussion when he hit his head on the ground after being flipped by Ward. Gronk will be placed on injured reserve and will likely miss just about all of 2014 training camp/preseason. We could see a familiar situation to start next year, as Gronk could miss the beginning of the regular season, just as he did in 2013.
Here is a video of the hit for those who missed it: