In the second quarter of the Miami Dolphins 38-10 win over the Tennessee Titans, Miami defensive end Olivier Vernon was called for the first of two roughing the quarterback penalties he would commit during the game. Vernon hit Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota low, taking him out at the knees in a play that saw the game stopped as trainers checked out Mariota. Ultimately, the quarterback stayed in the game, though he did have to add a knee brace for the remainder of the contest and he is expected to undergo an MRI today.
The refs deemed the play unnecessary roughness, similar to the "Tom Brady rule." In 2009, the NFL adopted a new rule, designed to protect quarterbacks knees and prevent injuries like the one that ended Brady's 2008 season. The rule says that a defensive player on the ground cannot lunge at a quarterbacks legs. In this case, Vernon was not on the ground, but he appeared to be heading that way, when he hit Mariota in the side of the left knee.
The commentators for the game clearly felt like the play was a dirty one, with Vernon targeting Mariota's knees. The Titans players seemed to think the same thing. Watching the play several times, it is hard to say for certain that Vernon had the intent to get to Mariota's knees. Sure, he could be intentionally targeting the legs, but he also appears to be a little out of control, possibly having slipped, and that is just where he hit Mariota. Vernon's head is down the entire time, looking at the ground. Again, maybe he was trying to go for Mariota's legs, but there is also a possibility he was just trying to keep his footing long enough to get to the quarterback, and never intended to hit Mariota's knees.
What happened on that play probably depends on the team for which you root. Titans fans will tell you straight up it was a dirty play and Vernon wanted to hurt Mariota. Dolphins fans will probably say it was completely an accident and there was no intent.
Titans coach Ken Wisenhunt is clearly in the group declaring it a dirty play. "I think it was B.S.," Whisenhunt told reporters during his post-game press conference. "That's not the way you play football. I think it was done with the idea of trying to hurt our quarterback, and that is bulls--- football."
Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was responsible for blocking Vernon on the play, echoed his coach's sentiment, "I think it is bulls--- football. I'm so tired of people being politically correct. That's bulls---, that's f---ing bulls--- to do that to a player, to do that to a guy's career.
"That was my guy and I blocked him," Lewan continued, "and Marcus threw the ball and I saw Marcus threw the ball, then that guy jumped at his legs. Do I wish anything upon him? No. I should have blocked him longer. That's the end of the story."
Vernon, who has never had a history being a "dirty player" was called for a second roughing the passer penalty later when he hit Mariota in the chest just after the quarterback threw the ball. He was asked about the first penalty after the game. ""I know one thing, it was not intentional. I've never been a dirty player in my whole career. Nobody tries to get personal fouls. I know one thing, they are expensive." Vernon also recorded one of Miami's six sacks on the day.
During NBC's Football Night in America pre-game show ahead of Sunday Night Football, former NFL safety Rodney Harrison took a look at the play and said he agrees with Vernon, there was no intent. He says, from looking at the film, it does appear Vernon slipped and basically fell into Mariota's legs.
That will not change how Tennessee fans see the play, and it may not change the fine Vernon could receive from the NFL this week. What is interesting, however, is the reaction of Mariota after the game. While Wisenhunt and Lewan clearly state there was intent in Vernon's actions, Mariota stated the exact opposite after the game. "I haven’t looked at the play. I don’t have an opinion about it. He came up to me after the game and apologized so I don’t think it was malicious at all," Mariota explained.
The Dolphins moved to 2-3 on the season with the win, while the Titans fell to 1-4. Miami will host the Houston Texans next week.