At a time when the media and multiple players have failed to provide NFL fans with clear information regarding prohibited and permitted actions when it comes to hitting in football and only one day after Commissioner Roger Goodell missed an opportunity to provide a clear statement regarding the line between aggressive football action and a violation of the rules during an on-air interview with ESPN’s Michele Tafoya, the league has released to the media its “Player Safety” guidelines.
These are not the official rules, but the document that explains what the rules allow and forbid, including diagrams of illegal hits. It was included in the 2010 League Policies for Players manual, which is distributed to all players and coaches at the opening of training camp. (And which, unfortunately, is actually read by likely less than one percent of its recipients.)
“We hope this information is helpful in understanding the NFL’s player safety-related rules,” NFL V.P. of football communications Michael Signora wrote in the e-mail accompanying the document. “There has been no change in rules since the start of the season, only an increase in the level of discipline for violations of existing rules.”
The rules are fairly simple. Defenseless players can’t be hit in the helmet or neck area, and they can’t be struck with a helmet in any area of the body.
Defenseless players include: (a) a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass; (b) a receiver catching or attempting to catch a pass; (c) a runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped; (d) a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air; and (e) a player on the ground at the end of a play.
Also, a receiver who has completed a catch (i.e., two feet down and a “football move”) and who has not had time to protect himself cannot be struck in head, neck, or face via a launch, even if the initial contact occurs at a point lower than the neck of the receiver.
As we’ve recently pointed out, hitting a ball carrier with the helmet or in the helmet is not prohibited, unless the use of the helmet amounts to spearing. It’s a know-it-when-you-see-it distinction. Players routinely dip their helmets/facemasks into a tackle, while still seeing their target. Helmet-to-helmet contact resulting from that maneuver is allowed. Dropping the helmet and ramming the top of it into an opponent constitutes spearing, a maneuver now rarely seen in football at any level because of the high risk of compression — and fracture — of the spine.
Hopefully, members of the media will come up with effective strategies for weaving this information into the coverage of NFL games. For now, the P.R. battle is being won by the skirts-and-flag-football crowd, with too little clear and accurate information being provided to fans who would be inclined to argue in response that the league is targeting only a narrow window of hits that entail enhanced risk of injury.
Big hits are still allowed, as Bengals Terrell Owens learned Monday night when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu flattened T.O. with a clean shoulder hit to the midsection. Owens bounced right up; all too often, receivers who take that kind of a hit to the head don’t.