Kareem Jackson couldn’t adjust to NFL rules, now it’s put Broncos in a bind

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Kareem Jackson may not have predicted he would be suspended for a second time this season, but he knew there was a good chance he was going to land in the league’s crosshairs once again.

As he returned to the Broncos’ facility last week following a league-mandated, two-game absence for an accumulation of illegal hits, the veteran safety suggested he was no closer to understanding how he is and isn’t allowed to tackle than he was before he got thrown out of an Oct. 22 game against the Green Bay Packers for a helmet-to-helmet hit on tight end Luke Musgrave.

“Not at all,” Jackson said when asked if he had come to understand how he needed to hit in order to avoid future discipline from the league. “I’m still looking for clarity on the rules. It’s a gray area when it comes to the rules that have been put in place, in my opinion. Nothing is black and white.”

Jackson said he had several conversations during his suspension with Jon Runyan, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, and Derrick Brooks, the former NFL linebacker who is now an appeals officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFLPA, “and still hang up the phone with no answers.”

“For me, I’m unsure as to how I play the game going forward,” Jackson said. “Like I said, I’m going to be in those situations two to three times every week. For me, it’s just trying to lower my target and, hopefully, don’t end in the same situation.”

It took only three plays upon his return for Jackson to land in a similar situation. It took one week following his return to land another suspension. On a third-and-1 play to open the Broncos’ game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, Jackson struck quarterback Josh Dobbs with the crown of his helmet as he flew in from the secondary. There was no flag thrown on the play, preventing the NFL review center from stepping in and slapping Jackson with a third ejection of the season. But on Monday, the league suspended Jackson four games for what Runyan, in a letter to the safety, called “a serious violation of the playing rules.” The suspension is pending an appeal from Jackson that was expected to be heard by Brooks on Tuesday.

The question for Jackson and the Broncos now: How did they land in a situation they could clearly see coming?

Jackson, who entered the league as a hard-hitting defensive back as a first-round pick in 2010, said he did not know how to play the game as it is currently officiated. To be clear, it is legislated in a different way than it was for much of Jackson’s career. The emphasis on “taking the helmet” out of the game has intensified even since Jackson joined the Broncos in 2019. That Jackson is hitting in the same way he always has doesn’t make him a dirty player. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s been endlessly applauded by teammates as someone who has helped young players navigate the league. It is certainly not a mark against the character of the 35-year-old veteran, who has been a staple in the communities in which he’s played. In the days leading up to Sunday’s game, Jackson hosted his third annual turkey giveaway for families in conjunction with Food Bank of the Rockies.

“That’s just for the public,” fellow safety P.J. Locke posted on the social media website X, where he railed against the portrayal of Jackson as a dirty player. “Imagine what he does behind closed doors.”

But the bottom line is Jackson’s inability to play within the confines of the league’s current rules, no matter what one thinks of the consistency with which they are applied, has hurt the Broncos. It hurt the team when he was flagged for an illegal hit on Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in Week 1, which knocked Meyers out of the game with a concussion and allowed the Raiders to extend a game-sealing drive. It hurt the team when he was ejected in Week 2 when he launched himself toward the head of Commanders tight end Logan Thomas, who was also forced to leave the game with a concussion. His hit on Musgrave, which led to Jackson’s second ejection of the season, helped extend a go-ahead touchdown drive for the Packers in the fourth quarter.

Now, he’s hurt the team with another impending absence.

Denver, which has climbed to 5-5 following a 1-5 start to the season, now faces a critical stretch of its schedule with major issues at safety. With Caden Sterns already lost of the season after knee injury and veteran P.J. Locke nursing an ankle injury that puts his status in doubt, the Broncos could be facing the Cleveland Browns and their fourth-ranked rushing attack with rookie JL Skinner or second-year reserve Delarrin Turner-Yell as a starter at safety alongside Justin Simmons. Skinner was active for the first time this season against the Vikings but only played on special teams. Turner-Yell, a 2022 fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma, has been a strong contributor on special teams but has struggled for stretches — both in coverage and against the run — when thrust into a starting safety role.

Jackson shared on social media Tuesday an interview between Tom Brady and media personality Stephen A. Smith on the latter’s podcast. In a section of the conversation that has gone viral, Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who retired following the 2022 season, lamented what he believes has been a decline in the quality of the game. He blamed poor player development, coaching “that isn’t as good as it was” and a change in the rules that “have allowed a lot of bad habits to get into the actual performance of the game.”

“I look at a lot of players like Ray Lewis and Rodney Harrison and Ronnie Lott and guys that impacted the game in a certain way … every hit they would have made would have been a penalty,” Brady said. “You hear coaches complaining about their own player being tackled and not necessarily — why don’t they talk to their player about how to protect himself? … “Offensive players need to protect themselves. It’s not up to a defensive player to protect an offensive player. A defensive player needs to protect himself.”

A defensive player protecting himself and his team in 2023 means playing under a different set of rules than were applied when Jackson entered league. The 35-year-old safety, evidenced by his pile of fines, ejections and suspensions, doesn’t know how to exist as a player under those current constraints.

Actually, forget what the punishments say. Jackson said with his own words that he no longer knows how to play the game under the NFL’s rules. The Broncos should have listened.

(Photo: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

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