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A Guidebook for NFL Hits: What's Legal, What's Not and What's Just Plain Dirty

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A Guidebook for NFL Hits: What's Legal, What's Not and What's Just Plain Dirty

For the past couple of seasons, the National Football League has been trying to make the game of football safer—at least, if one believes the NFL's side of the story. 

Commissioner Roger Goodell has become known as the judge, jury and executioner of player punishment as he has presided over an increase in fines having to do with player safety. In a way, Goodell and the owners have tried to legislate safety into an intrinsically unsafe game. 

This, of course, happened at the same time as a now-settled lawsuit by thousands of former players who attested that the NFL purposefully deceived them on the long-term dangers of concussions and head trauma in pro football was being contested by the league.

If nothing else, the renewed focus on safety has given the league something to highlight on the legal telestrator. 

The "new" rules stem from before the 2011 season, when the NFL decided to protect what it considers defenseless players. At that time, Ray Anderson—who serves as the NFL's executive vice president of football operations—told CBS Sports: 

Frankly, now that the notice has been given, players and coaches and clubs are very aware of what the emphasis is and we won't have that hesitation. Everyone will be very clearly on notice now that a suspension is very viable for us and we will exercise it ... when it comes to illegal hits to the head and neck area and to defenseless players...

Rules defining a defenseless player were expanded to include eight categories:

  • A quarterback in the act of throwing;
  • A receiver trying to catch a pass;
  • A runner already in the grasp of tacklers and having his forward progress stopped;
  • A player fielding a punt or a kickoff;
  • A kicker or punter during the kick;
  • A quarterback at any time after change of possession;
  • A receiver who receives a blind-side block;
  • A player already on the ground.

This year, the NFL is adding yet another wrinkle to the rulebook, outlawing offensive players from lowering the crowns of their helmets to ward off defensive players. 

For someone who grew up in the "golden era" of football, watching guys like San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott or Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary dishing out hits, it's easy to question whether the "good ol' days" have come and gone. 

Yet, it's more than a little quixotic to pretend as if the NFL is losing any followers as a result of its attempt to protect its players. It may make some die-hards pine for "better" days, but it's also coincided with the best TV ratings and fastest-rising TV dollars in the sport's history. A purist might try to argue that the integrity and passion of the game is more important than money, but I don't think the NFL owners are listening. 

Quibble with the intent and necessity of the rules all you'd like (there's a great comment section below), but this column is intended to fix one of my pet peeves. Rules are rules, and the players know the rules—or, at least, they should. Fans, on the other hand, rarely see the black and white of that matter, preferring to see the world in shades of gray with highlights of their favorite team's colors. 

As Week 1 starts and the season begins, here is what illegal hits look like in the NFL rulebook. 

 

Illegal Hits on Quarterbacks

OK, we all understand "roughing the passer," correct? But, did you know that roughing the passer accounts for an entire page in the NFL rulebook? In addition to hitting the quarterback after he has already thrown the ball, the rule encompasses: lunging at his knees, clubbing at his throwing hand and unnecessarily throwing him down with excess force.

Also from the rulebook under roughing the passer:

A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture—for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer’s head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the passer’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/"hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer. 

It is, if nothing else, a whole lot of verbiage for the general rule that we already know; "don't hit a quarterback in the head, or hard...like, at all. It also contains a whole lot of fine lines which can enrage both the players on the field and the fans at home. 

Take this play by Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for example:

Suh is known as a dirty player on the field. He was flagged here for a hit on Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who allegedly received a forearm to the head. On replay, one can see that clearly didn't happen. So, in reality, Suh was simply fined for being big, strong and a having a bad reputation.

The same could be said for Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher's hit on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is the patron saint when it comes to referees protecting quarterbacks, so one expects this kind of call when he's involved. 

So what is the NFL looking for from a defender? From the rulebook:

When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms.

At least, that is what referees are looking for. Does it get called properly every time? Of course not, so that's what fans and media should hold them accountable for.

 

Illegal Hits on Backs and Receivers

Running backs are the least protected players in all of football. While running the ball, it's assumed that high-speed collisions are going to be part of the equation. That said, there are still some rules for defenders to follow. 

First, tripping is normally something we expect to be called on offensive players tripping up defenders (similar to the leg-whip call), but a defender on the ground who attempts to trip up a runner rather than tackle him could be called for a penalty—even if that's what we would logically expect the defender to do.

There is also hitting a runner while he is out of bounds. This is often viewed as more of a judgement call by the refs when it really isn't. The NFL rulebook clearly puts the onus on defensive players in these instances:

Defensive players must make an effort to avoid contact. Players on defense are responsible for knowing when a runner has crossed the boundary line, except in doubtful cases where he might step on a boundary line and continue parallel with it.

That's pretty clear, and gives far less benefit of the doubt than many fans would probably like.

Then, we get to the aforementioned section of the rulebook. This prohibits any hits to the head of the runner or by the head of the defender on runners who do not have the ability to defend themselves and/or are not in a defensive posture. 

Again, the burden of proof is placed on defensive players:

A player who initiates contact against a defenseless opponent is responsible for avoiding an illegal act. This includes illegal contact that may occur during the process of attempting to dislodge the ball from an opponent. A standard of strict liability applies for any contact against a defenseless opponent, even if the opponent is an airborne player who is returning to the ground or whose body position is otherwise in motion, and irrespective of any acts by the defenseless opponent, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact.

Consider this hit by Chicago Bears linebacker Jon Bostic:

It was, at first, heralded by just about everyone as a great play by the rookie linebacker. Then, Bostic received his fine letter via FedEx and the NFL had to go around explaining exactly why it was illegal. 

Again, it's a bang-bang play, and exactly the kind of effort and tenacity that coaches want to see, but the rulebook says that Bostic has to make sure that he's not leading with his helmet. 

 

Illegal Hits on Specialists

Alongside the rarely called penalty of sliding under the kicker or punter in order to prevent him from returning to the ground, most roughing-the-kicker or roughing-the-punter penalties occur because the defender has initiated contact with either the kicking leg or the plant leg of the specialist.

There are some well-known caveats, however: A defender can be blocked into the specialist, and the specialist can be held accountable for attempting to "draw" the foul by his own actions. Also, if the specialist attempts to run in any way—even to attempt a rugby-style kick or "quick kick"—he's fair game. 

Special care is taken in regard to the plant leg, as that is the most defenseless body part of almost any player on the football field. Consider the knee of the plant leg like a car without shock absorbers. With all of the weight of the body on it, it is about as sturdy as a couple of twigs held together by a rubber band. A stray hit there can end a kicker's career almost instantly. 

The rulebook gets right to the point in the final note: "When in doubt, it is a foul for roughing the kicker."

 

Other Illegal Hits on Players in Compromised Positions

One of the dirtiest hits in recent memory came on a play that is now illegal. Defenseless players are now protected after a change in possession. Here is Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp blowing up Packers offensive tackle Chad Clifton:

At the time, this was legal a football play. Sapp didn't know which direction Clifton would move and whether he might make the eventual tackle, so Sapp played all out until the whistle—just like young players are taught. 

It's also clearly a dangerous play, which is now against the rules. 

Players are also protected from blows to and from the head during blindside blocks in which an offensive player is moving parallel to the line of scrimmage, as well as illegal crack-back blocks in which the offensive player uses his head. Let's just call this one the "Hines Ward Rule." Here's Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate being called for such an illegal block on Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee:

In addition, players are protected when they are already on the ground or in the act of sliding; when they are already in the grasp of a tackler or when they are receiving a kick or a punt. Again, it's entirely up to defenders to know all of these rules and to abide by them as the NFL seeks to make the game a safer place. 

That, in a nutshell, is the bottom line here. The NFL realizes it is impossible to make the game safe—I don't think Goodell or the owners are that deluded. No, but safer is a possibility as the league attempts to move forward with new rules (along with new technology and new medical advances). 

It isn't a popular goal, but it hasn't made the NFL any less popular, either, which means the new rules will persist, the game will continue to evolve, and defenders (and fans) need to take note.

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.

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