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.