There was a towel around his waist and a smile on his face as Jadeveon Clowney observed the crowd of interlocutors gathering like a fog in front of his locker.
“I already know what you want to ask me about,” he said in a jocular tone. “Knockin’ Carson Wentz out.”
He deferred comment until after his shower, then embarked on a slow, confident stroll around the locker room. He exchanged a bro-hug with Russell Wilson, and then a laugh with a few offensive linemen, and then he walked to the shower through a seam in the postgame swarm, his gait infused with the confident swagger of a conqueror unconcerned with the collateral damage in his wake.
More than anything, it was a reminder that the sport in question is not one for the empathic, and that everybody who plays it will spend his share of time on both sides of the violence. On Sunday, in the 17-9 loss to the Seahawks that ended the Eagles’ season, Clowney was the deliverer, knocking Wentz out of his first career playoff game less than six minutes after it started. As the quarterback was falling to the ground while being tackled by Bradley McDougald, Clowney angled his shoulder downward and aimed it like an air-raid bomb at the letters on the back of the jersey. In real time, it looked suspicious, in slow-motion wholly illegal, one helmet colliding into another as the latter’s facemask dug up turf like a snow plow dropped in error.
Wentz stayed in the game for the rest of the series, as athletes of his ilk are prone to do. But the force of the will eventually succumbed to the force of the hit, the impact as devastating as its reverberations.
“I was just playing fast,” Clowney said later, after he’d traded in his shower clothes for a black sweatsuit and braced himself for the inquisition. “He turned like he was running the ball, and I just tried to get him down. It was a bang-bang play. I don’t intend to hurt nobody in this league. Let’s just put that out there. I’ve been down the injury road, and it ain’t fun. My intention wasn’t to hurt him. Just playing fast.”
The real problem here is that none of the officials saw it as a problem. Clowney said he asked one of them after the play for his opinion, and that the official responded with more or less the same explanation that referee Shawn Smith delivered afterward.
“He was a runner, and he did not give himself up,” Smith said to a pool reporter. “We saw incidental helmet contact, and in our judgment, we didn’t rule that to be a foul.”
Which is all well and good, except for the fact that Clowney’s hit is the exact sort of thing that the NFL should be legislating out of its game. Within the context of the final score, the non-call probably didn’t matter. Fifteen extra yards weren’t going to do much for an offense that was operating with all of the giddy-up of an anesthetized armadillo. A piece of yellow fabric wasn’t going to put Carson Wentz’s brain in reverse and unplaster it from his skull. The Eagles were still going to play 50 minutes of football with a 40-year-old quarterback who was taking the first playoff snaps of his 17-year career. Their franchise signal caller was still going to watch the final three-and-a-half quarters of his first postseason start from the locker room if he was even physically capable of seeing anything but stars. The Eagles were still going to lose, and lose ugly, and limp into a third straight offseason of uncertainty at the game’s most important position.
Yet within the context of the sport as a whole, what mattered most was that a team was forced to play the vast majority of a playoff game without a player who was almost singularly responsible for it being there. Wentz’s absence was the sort of thing that the NFL should view as eminently avoidable, the result of a hit that did not need to be delivered in the manner in which Clowney delivered it. It’s a reality that the league always seems to overcomplicate every time it introduces a new guideline. The word “tackle” suggests the act of corralling, of wrapping up. It is a means to an end, and that end result does not need to be punitive in nature.
“I didn’t think I hit him with my helmet,” Clowney said. “Like I said, I don’t intend to hurt nobody. That’s a great player over there. For the team and for the organization I hope he’s OK."
That’s a perfectly reasonable sentiment. But, at least in this case, intent is incidental. The NFL long ago realized that the real entertainment value in its sport lies in the players who advance the ball downfield. And while it has made dramatic strides in the effort it takes to keep those players in a position to do so, it speaks volumes about the work yet to be done that Clowney’s pile-driving shoulder against a vulnerable ballcarrier was deemed legal.
Look, football is a violent sport, and there are certain repercussions from that violence that will always be present. Yet that is little consolation to Wentz, who now finds himself a victim of those repercussions for a third straight season, forced to answer for an injury that only the NFL can prevent. Prevention requires deterrence, and deterrence is a process. On Sunday, that process failed. Because it required the throwing of a flag.