We surmised that the decision arose either from the fact that Rice had fully completed the catch and Samuel hadn’t launched with his head, or from the reality that helmet-to-helmet contact was unavoidable. (The video shows that Rice had dipped his helmet before impact.)
NFL spokesman Randall Liu has supplied us with the answer.
“Because the receiver had completed the catch with two feet down and possession of the ball, he had protection from a hit to the head only from a defender who launches,” Liu said. “Samuel did not ‘launch’ as defined by our current rules because the ball of his right foot was on the ground when contact with the receiver was made. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8(h) Note states: ‘Launching is defined as springing forward and upward by a player who leaves his feet to make contact on the receiver.’ [NFL executive V.P. of football operations] Ray Anderson confirmed that the NFL Competition Committee will review the rule and the definition of ‘launch’ in the off-season with the anticipation that this type of action will be a foul in future seasons.”
Currently, the rules prohibit defenders from hitting a defenseless receiver in the head or neck, or with the helmet on any part of the defenseless receiver’s body. After the receiver is no longer defenseless, helmet-to-helmet contact is permissible absent a “launch.”
The takeaway point for the league’s players is that, in the future, defenseless receivers may get even greater protection, despite the fact that they have completed the catch and are in a position to defend themselves against a big hit.
The takeaway point for the Eagles is that a flag was thrown on a play that, under current rules, didn’t justify a flag. And so with the Vikings leading 10-7, they ended up with first and goal after the half-the-distance penalty, and the Vikings stretched the margin to 17-7.