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Odell Beckham Jr.’s injury sucks, but the hit that did it was probably legal

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A huge shame? Yeah. Illegal? It doesn’t look like it.

NFL: New York Giants at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t yet know how badly, but Odell Beckham Jr. is injured. He took a helmet to the area around his left knee in a preseason game against the Browns on Monday, and he exited with what the Giants are saying is a sprained ankle. The play:

If Beckham misses any regular season games, that’s terrible for the Giants and terrible for football. That it happened during a preseason game is a shame, because preseason games have limited meaning for players of Beckham’s caliber. All of it’s terrible, and there’s not much to do but hope he’s OK.

The hit that knocked Beckham out of the game came from Browns defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun, a second-year man from Minnesota. Calhoun’s helmet apparently did the damage, and the Giants are surely not happy with him.

After the game, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo didn’t complain.

“It’s football. You can’t hit a guy high. You can’t hit a guy low,” he said. “It’s a tough play for a DB.”

But as much as it stinks, there’s a good case the hit on Beckham was legal.

There’s no foul in the NFL rulebook for “hitting a player in the knee with your helmet.” It’s a crummy thing, but for a hit like that on a receiver to be against the rules, it has to fall into one of several buckets as a personal foul.

Here, those could be unnecessary roughness, unnecessary contact against a defenseless player, or contact with the crown of the helmet. But the hit Boddy-Calhoun put on Beckham arguably doesn’t meet any of those.

Beckham was definitely “defenseless” on the play. He was, as the rulebook puts it, “a receiver attempting to catch a pass who has not had time to clearly become a runner.” But just because he got hit low while defenseless doesn’t mean the hit was illegal.

There are three kinds of illegal hits on those players. One is a hit to the head. Another is a hit with the crown (basically the top of the forehead) of the helmet. The third involves an upward launch into a helmet hit. Boddy-Calhoun hits Beckham nowhere near the head, with the side of his helmet, and while diving forward and down.

The relevant clause from the rulebook, in full:

illegally launching into a defenseless opponent. It is an illegal launch if a player (i) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, and (ii) uses any part of his helmet to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body.

“Upward” is the key word there. Boddy-Calhoun isn’t launching upward.

On Tuesday, former NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino explained why the play was indeed legal:

If there’s any rules case against Boddy-Calhoun, it’s for unnecessary roughness.

Specifically, it’s this clause that defines unnecessary roughness as:

unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (1) is out of the play or (2) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead

That’s where officials (I’m not one) are likeliest to disagree about this play.

Beckham’s definitely still in the play. Should he have “reasonably anticipated” being dived into by Boddy-Calhoun? He’d certainly have expected to get hit in general, though maybe not by way of a helmet directly to his knee or thigh. But the contact in general was clearly reasonable, and it’s a leap to say that it was “unnecessary.”

Ultimately, unnecessary roughness is a judgment call, and the play was fast in real time. It’s really hard to flag Boddy-Calhoun for anything here, and that’s likely why none of the officials on the field did.