The thickness and complexity of the NFL rulebook means that, for most fans, the rules will be learned only when they are applied in a game. Or, as the case may be, when they’re not applied.
After Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin blew up Bengals punter Kevin Huber on Sunday night but wasn’t flagged, everyone learned that kickers and punters are included within the league’s laundry list of defenseless players. Throughout the down, even during the return.
Applied as written, the rule prohibits all contact with the head or neck of the punter or kicker, as well as any hits against the punter or kicker with an opponent’s helmet. Applied as written, this includes the ball carrier when using a stiff arm or when dipping his helmet to guard against an otherwise legal helmet-to-helmet hit from the punter or kicker, like the hit Pat McAfee applied to Broncos return specialist Trindon Holliday in October.
Per a league source, literal application of the rule would indeed prohibit even the ball carrier hitting the punter/kicker in the head. The source explained that, as a practical matter, the NFL would allow contact with the head of the punter/kicker in that situation.
The distinction between what the rule says and how the rule would be applied undermines the rule and displays its potential absurdity. As written, the player with the ball could never contact the kicker or punter in the head or neck area. If the league would never apply the rule that way, the league needs to consider changing the rule or dumping it.
It makes far more sense to make punters or kickers defenseless only when they aren’t trying to tackle or impede the runner. The current rule forces men like Garvin to realize — at full speed — that the player to whom he’s about to apply an otherwise clean block is the one player on the field who can’t be hit in the head or neck, even though that player is trying to position himself to tackle or slow down the man with the ball.
What was Garvin supposed to do? Recognize in the blur of bodies that the body he was about to strike belonged to a man who was wearing an invisible red jersey?
For all other defenseless players, the circumstances make their protections clears. Quarterback in the pocket. Receiver in the act of catching a ball. Punt returner trying to field a kick.
Under current rules, the league expects players whose livelihood depends on making blocks to not block one of 11 men a certain way, when the one protected man is otherwise mingling with the rest of his teammates. It’s not realistic, and for a guy like Garvin who is making the minimum salary and will now lose $25,000, it’s not fair.