Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Safety First!

Now that the playoffs are well under way, you might notice that the level of play becomes more…intense.  Every play is more significant, emotions run higher and trailing teams become more desperate.  Consequently, regard for personal safety becomes, well, disregarded.  So, I thought it would be a good time to review some of the rules that are intended to protect life and limb.

Facemask:   It is illegal to twist, turn or pull a player’s facemask.  The rules used to distinguish between an incidental facemask, which carried a 5-yard penalty, and a flagrant facemask, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty.  Under the current rule, the contact with the facemask must lead to a twist, turn or pull of the facemask to draw a flag. 

Uniform Requirements:  Other than specifying color schemes and brands of uniforms, many of the rules pertaining to the uniform address player safety.  Examples include requiring chin straps to remain snapped and specifications for pads and any casts or braces worn by players.  Click here for our post on uniform rules.

Horse-Collar:  Tacklers are prohibited from “grabbing the inside collar of the back of the shoulder pads or jersey, or the inside collar of the side of the shoulder pads or jersey, and immediately pulling down the runner.”  A take-down of this kind is called a “horse-collar” tackle.  It is important to clarify that the tackler must pull the runner down immediately after grasping the inside collar for the penalty to be called.  If he grabs him but the runner continues to run a few steps before being grabbed and tackled another way, there is no foul.  This is an interesting rule because it was enacted in the NFL long before it made it into the rule books at the college, high school and youth levels.  Usually, safety-motivated rule developments start at the lower levels and work their way up.

Unnecessary Roughness:  The name is self-explanatory, and is often used as a catch-all penalty.  Common examples (some of which I explain further) include: 

·         Hitting a player who’s run out of bounds;
·         Roughing the passer;
·         Roughing the kicker;
·         Sliding into, or diving onto, a player who is already down;
·         Using part of the helmet to spear or ram another player; and
·         Hitting a defenseless opponent.

Hitting the Kicker:  The rules differentiate between “running into” the kicker and “roughing” the kicker:

·   It’s “running into” the kicker if a single defender contacts the kicker without touching the ball after it’s been kicked;
·   "Roughing” occurs if the contact rises to the level of unnecessary roughness, in the discretion of the referee.

The distinction is critical because running into the kicker comes with a 5-yard penalty which roughing results in a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense.  Since these penalties typically occur on fourth downs when the offense is punting, these penalties, especially roughing, can be devastating for the offending team.  And they make coaches really angry!

Roughing the Quarterback:   This one always gets people going, whether it’s the offense complaining about the defense trying to kill its quarterback, or the defense displaying utter shock that introducing the QB to the turf drew a flag.  Commentators and the media like to fan the flames as well.  But, the league has placed a particular emphasis on protecting quarterbacks in recent years and the referee will not hesitate to call a penalty when a quarterback is tackled well after he has gotten rid of the ball, especially if the defender makes contact with the QB’s head. 

Hitting a “Defenseless” Player:  There is a lot involved in this one, and it has been a point of emphasis in recent years.  There are actually two separate provisions in the rules:

·   Players are prohibited from “launching” into a defenseless opponent.  To be an illegal “launch,” the player must (1) leave both feet “to spring upward into his opponent” and (2) use any part of his helmet to initiate contact against any part of the opponent’s body. 

·   It is also illegal to initiate “unnecessary contact” against a “defenseless” posture.  “Unnecessary contact” is either:  lowering the head to make contact against the opponent with the top of the head; or using the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder to hit the opponent’s head or neck area.  This includes those “helmet-to-helmet” hits you’ve probably heard about, and which now carry fines from the league.  The following are some examples of “defenseless” players:

o   The quarterback, while throwing, or just after throwing, a pass;
o   A receiver who is trying to catch a pass, or who has just caught it and is not yet considered a “runner”;
o   A player trying to catch a kick that’s still in the air; and
o   A player who’s already on the ground.

The recent emphasis on these rules was prompted by a series of vicious hits last season, particularly on October 17th, which became known as “Black Sunday.”  One hit in particular drew national attention—when Steelers linebacker James Harrison clocked Cleveland Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (#11 in picture).

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