Thursday's highly anticipated NFL kickoff game, a rematch between the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos and Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers, was a game that was not the most memorable but was certainly a game that was mired in controversy. Cam Newton took three highly dangerous helmet-to-helmet shots in the game, including a particularly vicious shot from Darian Stewart in the fourth quarter which was flagged for roughing the passer, rather than the expected targeting, and was then offset by an intentional grounding call. There were no ejections given, no yards given, and possibly most importantly, no concussion evaluations were given. Considering the play-out of the season opener, the league has decisions to make about its enforcing of hits against quarterbacks, especially the Cam Newtons and Ben Roethlisbergers of the league who may not visibly show the impacts of the big hits that they take because of their size.
The NFL has two paths that it can take. The first is the more reasonable solution and that which would be best for the preservation of the health of the players in the league and for the defense of the league itself. Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, and Darian Stewart must all receive fines for their actions in Thursday's game. The referees must also receive sanctions in the form of fines or dismissal. The NFL must ensure NFL fans that referees and players are being constructively encouraged to protect vulnerable players, specifically the nearly defenseless QBs. Hits like those seen in the season opener do more to insult and worry fans than make them excited for the next defensive play. If the NFL fails to act on this moment and use this specific game as an example to prevent another game like this season, they are administratively putting players at increased risk of harm and are making the game unfair for the stronger QBs who tend to experience the more vicious big hits.
The NFL's other option is to defend the calls (or lack thereof in this case) and recognize this game as a precedent setter for the rest of the league for the rest of this season. This would not be an uncommon move for the NFL to make as admitting fault in situations such as these is similar to admitting that the league put the safety of players at risk; however, this is a necessary step for the overall improvement of the league in both play and safety.
Most NFL fans can appreciate the return of the defensive presence that the NFL now has. The Von Millers of the league are providing big, game-changing plays that are exciting to watch. Even in this same light, the league cannot allow violations of its targeting rules, ones that are in place directly for the safety of players, to go unchecked. To do so would mean a reduction in the integrity of the league and a reduction in the ability of QBs and other players to do their jobs safely.