The NFL recognizes that Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead should have been penalized for a hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield on Sunday, a source familiar with the league’s thinking said Tuesday.
Whitehead could have been flagged for one of two infractions: unnecessary roughness for a hit to the head of a sliding player or unsportsmanlike conduct for using his helmet to hit a player, the source said.
The NFL is not commenting on the hit. Fines are typically announced on Fridays. If the league fines Whitehead, it will be public affirmation that the play should have been penalized.
The hit occurred in the Bucs’ 26-23 overtime win on Sunday. Mayfield slid at the end of a 35-yard run on second-and-26 in the fourth quarter. Shortly after Mayfield’s knee hit the ground, Whitehead’s helmet hit the side of Mayfield’s head.
Whitehead lowered his head to make the hit and used the crown of his helmet. Both are textbook examples of what the league does not want and are included in the descriptions of hits that could lead to a player being ejected.
Officials initially flagged the play, but after a conference, referee Shawn Hochuli announced that the flag would be picked up.
“The quarterback was still a runner and therefore is allowed to be hit in the head,” Hochuli said to the crowd. “He had not yet begun to slide.”
Mayfield was ruled down at the Tampa Bay 41-yard line with 7:47 left and the Browns trailing 23-16. A 15-yard penalty would have moved the Browns to the 26. The Browns moved to the Bucs’ 1 on the drive but failed to score on a fourth-down quarterback sneak.
When Mayfield started to slide is a judgment call; hits to the head are not. Sliding players are protected by league rule from hits to the head. The league knows the penalty should have been called, according to a source.
“There’s a lot of stuff being put out on protecting the quarterback,” Mayfield said after the game. “Doesn’t seem like the Browns are getting a lot of calls, but they can review it, and they can say I was a runner, but I started my slide. That’s helmet-to-helmet contact.”
Browns coach Hue Jackson said after the game that he did not understand why the flag was picked up. Other players complained. On Monday, Jackson said the team would ask the league for clarification.
“That was disappointing,” Jackson said. “That is all that I can say.”