Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: DeAndre Hopkins-Jalen Ramsey and Gaining Comfort in the Gray

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines four plays in 2018’s Week 7 duel between Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey and gains insights on what makes these NFL All-Pros special.  

DeAndre Hopkins is among the best tight-coverage receivers in football. Jalen Ramsey is among the best man-to-man cornerbacks. They meet twice a year and when they do, it’s a treat for football fans — unless you view the rules of the game as strict scripture and not a living-breathing system with gray area.

If you can’t appreciate tactics of questionable legality that are up to interpretation, watching Hopkins compete with Ramsey is frustrating. I understand the sentiment even if I find the action enthralling.

Those who see rules in solely black and white, DeAndre Hopkins is cheating on one play and Ramsey the next. This is how a former defensive back and position consultant who interacted with me on Twitter sees these plays.

I don’t know who the gentleman is and what level of ball he played, but I can understand how he might find it challenging to teach kids right and wrong if you welcome shades of gray into rules. You’ll see in his responses to these videos that he wouldn’t teach it this way.

I get it — especially if he’s a coaching high school students. They’re learning fundamentals.

Ideas, concepts, and rules are best taught with a strictness early on and as the student gets older and/or gains more experience, they will earn more exposure to the allowable gray area. That philosophy isn’t for everyone but it’s a pattern we find with a lot of instruction. As minds gain greater experience and sophistication, dealing with gray area becomes more important.

The Hopkins-Ramsey duel has a lot of gray-area behavior. If you’re studying the game as an evaluator of talent, it’s important to embrace the gray because scouting is a pragmatic craft, which may not be true with coaching youth football.

An evaluator has to balance what’s possible with what’s likely.

It’s possible that the NFL will call offensive fouls in receiver-cornerback interactions with a heavier hand to the letter of the law. However, it’s unlikely it will happen. While often distasteful to dwell in the grey when it comes to high finance, politics, and other competitive arenas that impact lives, it’s embraced with slightly more acceptance in sports.

Well…ever so slightly. It’s a topic of subtleties.

Below is a play in the Hopkins-Ramsey duel that requires an aspiring evaluator to appreciate the gray area.

Can we say for certain that Hopkins pushes off Ramsey? Those who say yes will note Ramsey reacting to the contact.

Those who will say no will note that Ramsey’s movements were exaggerated and designed to sell the idea of offensive interference to the official. They’d contend if Ramsey’s movement wasn’t exaggerated, he wouldn’t have stayed with Hopkins.

For an evaluator, it might be most optimal not to see this as a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty situation and instead, consider it a half a glass of liquid.

In some ways, it’s like being a parent when a child experiences bullying. You teach them the right (good) and wrong (bad) responses to these situations. Then you teach them the pragmatic perspective: how to defend themselves appropriately.

How do you do that with this play?

Hopkins extends his arm and places it on Ramsey’s back shoulder and a split-second later, under the arm-pit for several possible reasons that account for the half-full, half-empty, and a half-a-glass perspectives:

Hopkins isn’t pushing (Glass Half-Full): The defender’s back shoulder is the closest to the receiver and it creates a leverage advantage for the receiver. The receiver’s leverage advantage prevents the defender from grabbing him without exerting any force that the defender doesn’t initiate on his own. After all, Hopkins is running away from the defender so the most likely person in a position to exert force is the chaser.

Hopkins is pushing (Glass Half-Empty): The location of the receiver’s hand placement is hard for an official to see because the defender’s arm is over the top of the receiver’s. It creates the illusion that the defender is initiating and controlling the contact when the receiver is actually in control.

Hopkins is testing the officiating crew’s boundaries early in the game (Half-a-glass): If called against Hopkins, the receiver learns what he can and cannot do during the game based on the subjective nature of officiating that will never change. If not called against Hopkins, the receiver knows he has the permission to put the defender in a no-win position of either getting too aggressive and drawing a penalty or not aggressive enough and permitting the catch. It all depends on whether Hopkins can earn a position to achieve this maneuver.

If you’re competing in a professional arena, you aren’t interested in what should or shouldn’t be; you want to know what “is.” A significant part of competition is testing boundaries — yours, your opponents, and the limits of the rules.

I appreciate that all in one play, Hopkins’ maneuver tests the boundaries of the officials, enforces separation on Ramsey, and creates a no-win situation for Ramsey. It’s a fantastic display of strategy and understanding of the game within the game between a receiver-cornerback matchup that’s a microcosm of the larger game around them.

If the team I’m evaluating wants a receiver who is willing to mix it up like this, test the officials, and the patience of the opponent, Hopkins is a fit. If a team wants a clean technician who doesn’t engage in this behavior at all, Hopkins won’t be on the list. Whether I agree or disagree with the style of play is not my job, it’s to appreciate what fits and what doesn’t in the current game for the current team involved.

The same is true of Ramsey. Here’s a play where one can make the argument that he holds Hopkins.

Again, taking the half-a-glass approach, Ramsey uses his arm to earn a position that limits the receiver. He’s not using his hand to hold and it’s difficult to tell whether he’s pinning the receive’rs arm under his own? Like Hopkins, he’s letting the official decide the rules of this specific game.

It may go against your inherent sense of fairness but it’s how the NFL plays and officiates football.  As the two opponents develop an idea of the ground rules through this testing, you begin to see Hopkins and Ramsey adjust to an even more physical style of play.

In this context, Hopkins’ counter of Ramsey’s physical play displays a knowledge of leverage and movement that’s impressive. The receiver under-hooks Ramsey at the top of his stem with his outside arm and in split-second succession brings the inside arm over the reach of Ramsey to work loose.

The final play is one that I admit that, if my feelings matter at all on the topic (which they don’t), I feel ambivalent about what Hopkins is doing if what I see below is intentional.

If Hopkins is trying to swat Ramsey upside the head, I can appreciate the strategic execution — Hopkins’ clever manner of disguising it —while also disliking that it’s not fair when he gets away with it.

Not everyone is comfortable in the gray area. When it comes to areas of life outside football, there are people operating in these ways that enrage my sensibilities. However, as an evaluator of the game, I see this behavior with football players much differently.

It’s not necessarily right or wrong and I can live with it.

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