Defenseless receivers

All season, I’ve been semi-confused by commentators’ responses to personal foul flags for hits on defenseless receivers. The Monday Night Football crew is a good example: Jon Gruden epitomizes the old school idiot camp that never read the new rules and doesn’t care about safety (“That’s just a great football play, these players are taught to drive through the receiver”), but Mike Tirico is actually more confusing (“With the new rules this year, you cannot hit a defenseless receiver”).

If you cannot hit a defenseless receiver, how can you ever defend a pass play other than knocking the ball away with you hands? Why aren’t even more plays flagged? I finally went straight to the rule book. Plays will be flagged as personal fouls

  • if a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily.
  • if a player illegally launches into a defenseless opponent. It is an illegal launch if a player (1) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, and (2) uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body.

That seems pretty clear, and I can see an analogy to leaving your feet to make an illegal hockey check. Then there’s some additional information. The following is prohibited:

  • Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him
  • Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body.

To sum it up, you can’t lead with your helmet, even if you hit the receiver low, and you can’t hit the guy in the head forcibly with any part of your body. Why do announcers have such a hard time understanding this and explaining it to fans? The NFL has TONS of rules, but this one comes up a lot and often generates confusion. It doesn’t have to.

As a rugby player, I’m skeptical that this is the simplest and safest way to write this rule. Rugby has four rules about tackling: (1) you must wrap your arms around the man, (2) no tackles above the shoulders, (3) no late hits or tackling the man without the ball (just like in football), (4) no tackling a man in the air (runners may not leap, so this primarily affects kick receipts).

Check out some big rugby hits on Youtube. Especially between minutes 2 and 3, you’ll see that legal hits with the shoulder around the waist area can be exciting, dislodge the ball, and stop the runner in his tracks without putting the head in danger. There are lots of concussions in rugby, but most of them do not occur in one on one, legal tackles. I think the NFL would do well to adopt similar tackling rules for defenseless receivers (perhaps with the addition that forcible contact to the helmet is still a foul, since this can still occur with big football helmets in a rugby style tackle).

For more rugby fun, check out the New Zealand All Blacks making fun of NFL Reebok commercials. I also found the NFL case book surprisingly interesting. What a strange sport.


3 responses to “Defenseless receivers

  1. I don’t think rugby tackling rules would work for football. Each rule is somewhat non-applicable

    1) Wrapping is nearly impossible in football given padding. It also would put the defense at a tremendous disadvantage due to the fact that most wrap tackling don’t “stuff” a player.

    2) This is a problem due to the nature of tackling in football vs. rugby, where hits are almost always straight on. This could be implemented solely for “defenseless” players, which is what we’re talking about here anyway.

    3) Already a rule, although “tackling without the ball” has it’s own set of rules – it’s called blocking.

    4) Tackling in the air is difficult due to the necessity of keeping a receiver from establishing possession on the sideline. Also, jumping is not prohibited for runners.

    Is this the simplest and safest way to write the rule? Doubtful, the NFL rules tend to be too complicated as it is. One way to help ourselves out in parsing this thing is to define the negative, ie. what is legal? This is what you can do: launch into a defenseless receiver by leaving both feet and springing upward into the opponent AND hit the defenseless opponent in any part of his body with any part of your own body but the head. Similarly, you can hit with the helmet so long as you hit with the shoulder first. This conforms nicely with the “additional information” you added, which comes from the statement defining a “defenseless opponent”.

    Does this get us to a simpler statement of the rule that even Gruden can understand? I think it does. In short, “a player cannot initiate contact with a defenseless opponent with his helmet anywhere on the opponent’s body or forcibly hit the defenseless player in the head”. In other words, all the stuff about leaping is IRRELEVANT because it’s possible to legally hit a defenseless player by leaping into him so long as you conform to the rules already in the section defining a “defenseless opponent”. All the “rule change” was was a clarification, much like the IRB did with the rule about poaching two years ago.

    Indeed, the NFL confused things in the new rule by not explicitly stating that you can’t hit the head with the arm, shoulder, etc. as defined in the “defenseless opponent” definition. Now commentators, and maybe even officials, look at the new rule in isolation, and fail to flag leaping shoulder-to-helmet catches. I could go further and discuss how the ambiguity in the “defenseless opponent” term leads to absurdities like Ray Lewis not being flagged for dismembering Hines Ward, but I’ll stop for now.

    • You are such a lawyer. I should have known you would write a whole case about a rules post.

      I agree, 3) and 4) are not particularly relevant. I should have stressed that in the post. As for 1), I think the important part is the attempt to wrap, not whether you are actually able to wrap. I think you’ll see in the highlight video that I linked above that wrap tackles can stop a defenseless receiver no problem. Regarding 2), I only mean to implement these rules for defenseless receivers, so I think that it works.

      The tricky part about both our suggestions is what to do when you make a seemingly safe tackle (you make first contact with your shoulder), but a little bit on the high side, and your helmets smack together because they are just so damn enormous. These hits are getting flagged and produce the most Gruden spew from commentators and players. Because of the danger inherent in these hits, I think you need a specific prohibition against contact to the helmet. Of course, this can be relaxed slightly if the receiver ducks into you, just as refs make judgment calls on high tackles in rugby. The benefit of the rugby rules, I think, is wrapping commits you to using your shoulder instead of your head and tackling low avoids most hits to the head.

  2. I played football through high school and I can promise you that I have always been able to wrap up even with all the pads. It is a critical part of football. If you don’t wrap up there is a really good chance you will miss the tackle. All a good back or receiver has to do is put a move on you like a juke or a spin move and you whiff. Saying a wrap up rule would not apply to american football is ridiculous. I was taught from peewee through high school to wrap up. I am sorry Adrian, but do you know anything about the game?

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