“Defenseless” kicker/punter rule needs to go


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.

71 responses to ““Defenseless” kicker/punter rule needs to go

  1. It’s not fair at all. It was a clean block to a defender in the midst of a pursuit angle to the ball carrier.

    This Ravens fan is with the Steelers defender on this one.

  2. With all due respect, the problem with Garvin’s hit was not that it was on a punter. The problem with Garvin’s hit is that it was a helmet to helmet hit, which is a personal foul penalty.

    I agree with you on getting rid of the rule that classifies punters and kickers as always being defenseless. But to ask “what was Garvin supposed to do?” ignores that fact that Garvin’s hit would have been illegal on any player.

    If Garvin had hit the punter with a legal block, and been flagged, then your point would have been better illustrated. But you seem to be glossing over the fact that Garvin’s hit was a helmet-to-helmet hit, which is an illegal hit on any player, regardless of position.

  3. The penalty was not and should have been called. Both men were doing their job and if the punter cannot be contacted, he should just punt and run off the field, to never have any impact on the player following his punt.

    Or the punter should be replaced by a “real” football player, who participates fully within the framework of the game. The rule is terrible and the fine is ridiculous. This is the one Ray Lewis and his crew should step up and offer to pay.

  4. Why doesn’t a real player stand behind the kicker/punter then when the ball is kicked/punted the kicker/punter runs off the field immediately and the guy standing behind him takes his place as the last line of defense in a return. Personally I think a football player is a football player .

  5. If you want to keep in the defense-less punter rule, then make a rule that he cannot be in on tackling the return man. After he kicks the ball, the punter must run off the field. So in essence, it will be 10 on 11 for the remainder of the punt. That 10 on 11 might entice more teams to go for it on 4th & short, even on their side of the 50…and more exciting.

  6. If punters/kickers can’t be blocked, they should be prohibited from attempting to make a tackle. 15 yard penalty for a punter/kicker impeding the returner.

    Can’t have it both ways.

  7. What’s he supposed to do?

    How about not lead with the crown of his helmet into someone’s jaw? He got the fine, Huber got the broken jaw and vertebrae. Neither player has openly complained.

    I’m not sure why other teams don’t have a hard time following this. Is it because the Steelers can’t and now it’s time to change the rule? Who’s crying now?

    There have been 2 broken jaws in the NFL in the last 30 years. Both have been commited by Steelers players on Bengals players.

  8. How about let’s just not strike guys in the head/neck with the crown of the helmet and be done with it? Fine or no fine, how exactly is what happened fair to Huber, considering he will be drinking his meals for the next couple of months?

  9. “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.”

    Even if you leave off the defenseless player rule, how about the fact that he hit the guy right under his facemask which is a flaggable and fine-able event in and of itself?

  10. Regardless of the rule (which doesn’t make sense), in this instance the Steeler defender appeared to lead with his helmet. And he targeted high. The hit could have paralyzed the kicker. The defender should have aimed lower. Hope the punter makes a full recovery.

  11. Not fair? How about eating thru a straw with a broken vertebrae? Give me a break. There is no way that Garvin didn’t know he was the punter. It shouldn’t matter anyway, he lead with his helmet in the open field. Should have been flagged regardless.

  12. Garvin still led with the crown of the helmet and applied it to Huber’s head/neck area (chin). I could be confused about the rules, but isn’t that an illegal hit regardless of the position Huber plays?

  13. I agree. Garvin got jobbed. And, for the record, I (like every non-Steelers fan) hate the Steelers. If they are going to keep this rule, they need to have the punter/kicker wear a red jersey.

  14. Garvins hit was illegal no matter who the player was. Helmet to the jaw. Last time I looked the jaw was part of the head.

  15. Reinforces the widely held belief that kickers are not football players. Thanks for the validation NFL.

  16. Doesn’t matter if this was against the punter or not.

    This hit should be illegal against any player. Much like the DB’s hitting a receiver, blockers can not hit someone in the head either.

  17. Why does it matter if he is “defenseless” or not? There should be a rule that even when blocking you can’t absolutely blow up a guy with the crown of your helmet into his helmet/chin. In today’s NFL that’s the way all other rules are written. That hit on Huber would have fractured the jaw of any LB or WR covering that punt (see Keith Rivers and Hines Ward), then it would have been legal and fine? That’s ridiculous. There’s no need to try for the highlight reel hits, and if you want one, hit him in the chest and knock the wind out of him.

    As it is, if Huber were any position but a punter, his career would likely be threatened with fractured vertebrae. Fortunately he probably only makes contact with another player once every few weeks so it shouldn’t matter that he has fused vertebrae.

  18. If the punter is defenseless after the kick he should not be allow to tackle on the runback. The punter should just run off the field after the kick.

  19. Really? What would be wrong with him just blocking the punter to the ground? In this case, he applied as much force as he could to try to take out the punter. The hit of that much force was not really necessary was it? And so now, in this case, the punters jaw is broken and he has fractures in the neck. Garvin did not need to hit a punter with that much force to keep him out of the play.

  20. He could’ve blown him up just as bad or even worse by putting a shoulder into his chest. And we all know full speed or not, he was well aware he was about to hit the punter. I’m quite sure that they had a good laugh about it on the sidelines after the play. And it Sucks for the rest of the guys on the field that have to take that shot and have it considered “clean”.

  21. If we are getting rid of “defenseless” player rules, I’m getting pretty sick of seeing “defenseless” Wide Receivers who have the ball in their possession.

  22. What’s not fair about it? Garçon led with his helmet into Hubers chin strap. That’s worth a fine. I’d say the same thing if we had hit a Steeler. As a matter of fact, I remember a couple years ago our gunner got fined for a block similar to this one and he hit the guy square in the chest.

  23. Garvin will not lose $25,000 if he appeals the fine because the CBA rule states a player fined for the 1st time cannot be fined in excess of 25% of his weekly salary. Garvin’s weekly salary is $24,000

  24. Agree the rule should be better defined. A punter or kicker trying to make a tackle should not be declared defenseless. Its dumb. But in the Garvin hit he went high when he didnt need to. A shoulder into the mid section would have achieved the desired results. Delivering hits with the helmets to the head, and yes the chin is part of your head, to ANY unexpecting player should be flagged. The Hines Ward rule is in place for a reason. He knew what he was doing and went high. Was a cheap shot.

  25. Garvin knew exactly who he was hitting and knew he wanted to make some highlight reel play on him. Well, he made the highlight reel but it cost him half a seasons worth of checks.

    There is some validity that the punter is fair game in 11 on 11 plays between the sidelines. If the NFL wants to protect that position, the punter should not be allowed to take part in the play after the ball is kicked.

    I still think Garvin acted malicously, after watching that play a dozen or more times now. He inteded injury or he would not have taken the angle he did. He deserves the fine.

  26. When Jason Hanson was around, he was probably one of the leading tacklers on Lions’ special teams.

    Partly because no one else on ST could tackle.

    The hit that hurt Huber was dirty, plain and simple. Helmet to helmet blocks using the face mask as a weapon are supposed to be illegal, regardless of the target.

    You don’t need to emasculate kickers and punters any more than they already are. Especially in an official capacity.

  27. I believe that the Punter should be hit with a block just as any other player on the field would. Its not like Huber was standing there defenseless, he was attempting to tackle the runner, which makes him fair game in the situation. If you don’t want your punter to lose parts of his body while making a play, then bulk him up and hit the weight room or simply draft a defensive lineman to do the job. Enough is enough with these rules! The league is destroying the game one rule at a time.

  28. I’m not addressing whether the Garvin hit could have been avoided or not, but the issue is bigger than this one incident. If they want special protection for kickers, then they need to kick and then trot off the field. It is ridiculous to think that a man trying to make a tackle should be afforded “protection”. The double standard in the application of these “protection” rules makes no sense. For instance, you can horse collar the Qb in the pocket, but do it one yard downfield to any player and it’s 15 yards. News flash NFL, ligaments can tear in the pocket too!!

  29. I agree with getting rid of the defenseless player rule as it applies to punters and kickers trying to make a tackle.

    I take huge exception to the idea that what Garvin did was an “otherwise clean block”. Stuffing your hard plastic and steel helmet up under someone else’s face mask directly into their jaw is dangerous, dirty, and unnecessary no matter who you are doing it to and regardless of whether it is legal or not.

    When you do that, you’re not trying to prevent someone from making a tackle, you are trying to hurt them. You are trying to purposely give them a brain injury. Think about that.

    I played football for many years, and I guarantee you that Garvin was never taught to block that way. There were plenty of ways he could have impeded Huber’s path to the ball carrier without potentially ending his career and permanently effecting his life.

  30. “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?”

    Yes, the football field is just a blur for players. It’s amazing passes are ever completed, between the QB finding anything but a blur to throw to, and how awesome are WR’s able to find a football in all that blur.

    Kickers/punters aren’t exactly the same size as most other players. Garvin knew who he was hitting. He also knew it didn’t take lowering his shoulder and head and putting all his weight behind the block to make the play. He was trying to hit someone really hard.

    One day you’re all worried about Vernon Davis not getting concussion tests despite not showing signs of a concussion, the next you’re defending a completely unnecessary and avoidable shot to a punter’s head.

  31. I know a very successful HS coach who never punts unless inside his 30. If he were to punt, his defense would have to be on field much longer and be tired late in the game. Either his team converts on. 4th down or other team takes over. His team either holds or the other team scores quickly which gives his high powered offense more time to score. Sounds absurd but works. Maybe NFL ought to abolish punting.

  32. There is absolutely NO REASON you should ever hit a punter when you can just grab his flag and pull. Oh, wait, that rule won’t be implemented ’til 2014 — my bad.

  33. While they’re at it, take another look at ‘roughing the kicker.’ I am so tired of seeing drives extended by cheap penalties on a rusher trying to block a punt.

    Sure, if some guy goes in and blows the kicker up, that’s one thing, but some of these calls when the punter just gets bumped are shenanigans. It’s football, not badminton.

  34. Everyone keeps saying he “led with the crown of his helmet to the head and neck area.” Um, no he did not. His head was to the side and the crown is the top third of the helmet. Did he hit helmet to helmet? Yes, but that IS legal in the open field while blocking. Leading with the crown is illegal and that he did not do.

    Also, keep in mind that this was a BLOCK guys, not a tackle. You cannot aim too awful low effectively or you risk missing the block or wrapping up and getting a holding penalty. Nearly every block in an NFL game includes helmet-to-helmet contact, because they are almost always face-to-face. GArvin just made the mistake of blowing up the wrong dude.

  35. OMG, these comments are killing me. if this hit happened in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, this hit would be played over and over as a dynamic hit. it was not helmit to helmit. it was a clean play that ended up seriously hurting someone. forget that it’s a punter. isn’t football a violent sport? Dick Butkis is rolling his eyes right about now and Jack Tatum is rolling over in his grave (for those old enough to know who there are). If you don’t know, google their hits… I’m not gonna say i’ll stop watching the NFL, but it sure makes it hard to watch when every hard hit is a penalty!!!!

  36. Let’s have ‘disposable helmets’ that absorb hits. That way everyone can play smash mouth football and helmet on helmet hits will not produce concessions or broken necks.

  37. why should there ever be a block leading with the helmet especially to the helmet or underneath of any other players helmet, unless your trying to hurt them.

  38. That’s neither here nor there at this point.

    Defenseless or not it should be a penalty when ANY player uses his helmet as a weapon to get underneath another players mask to take him down.

  39. Wow

    Just forget then defenseless aspect of the hit. Consider the hit was helmet to chin, breaking his jaw. I don’t see how you not throw a flag, especially considering they throw flags for much less

  40. Modify the rule……Defenseless until passed the line of scrimmage. Thus, no cheap shots to them after they come down from the punt but treats them the same as any player if they advance to try to tackle the receiver.

  41. Dick Butkis is rolling his eyes right about now and Jack Tatum is rolling over in his grave (for those old enough to know who there are). If you don’t know, google their hits…

    everybody knows DIck Butkis…He was on “My two dads”.

  42. Go listen to the NFL exec. He said the fine was for helmet-to-chin. Watch the replay and you see the Garvin dropping his helmet and hitting Huber under the chin.

    The comment about Huber’s status as a ‘defenseless player’ is additional information in the rules. I agree it should be removed, but that would be irrelevant in this case since Garvin dropped his head and hit Huber’s chin. There should have been a penalty and subsequent fine no matter who the player was on the receiving end of Garvin’s hit.

  43. Let’s not worry about what’s fair to the guy that got totaled. Let’s worry about what’s fair to the guy that caused the accident.

    But the rule is pretty stupid.

  44. Kickers and punters could wear uniquely colored jerseys or vests. Easy solution. How about pink?

  45. The problem isn’t with hitting a punter,The problem is when you hit a player in his blindside with your helmet.

  46. Everyone saying the block was illegal because it was H2H, needs to watch the hit the Colts Kicker McAfee put on Hteh Broncos Holliday. It was H2H, and the play was shown over and over on every sports show, saying what a great hit it was, and saying how tough McAfee was.

    But now we are saying kickers are defenseless, and underweight and not real football players and need rxtra protection. I dont want to hear H2H with the Garvin hit, because Garvin turned his head to the left, he hit huber in the chest then Garvins Helmet hit hubers chin. Garvin wasnt wasnt spearing, it wasnt crown of the helmet, it was the side of his helmet at worst to the neck area. Now go watch the McAfee hit, and tell me that wasnt full on H2H, yet no penalty, no fine, and certianly no vilification on Mcafeee for blowing up Holliday with a H2H hit.

    Here is what Mike Florio said about the McAfee hit “McAfee’s hit was helmet to helmet, but no penalty was called. And no fine should be imposed, for two reasons. First, Holliday wasn’t defenseless, so he can be hit in the helmet/neck area and with a helmet. Second, McAfee didn’t use the top of his helmet when hitting Holliday.”

    I think the rule neeeds to be changed. They either need to make the Punters and Kickers fall under the QB rule, where after they kick they cant be touched so long as they dont attempt to tackle, but once they do engage in a tackle, they are no longer protected. Either that or make them run off the field.

  47. The rule is in place for an excellent reason. It should remain in place. Most teams only have 1 punter and 1 kicker active during a game. Knocking out the other team’s punter/kicker has a significant effect. The Eagles put bounties on the Cowboys specialists some years back. Though no team ever uses bounties any more (wink, wink) a player could still take it upon himself to take out the other team’s kicker or punter. Most coaches would deny encouraging it but also wouldn’t mind trading 15 yards for bad punts or missed FGs.

    Frankly the kickers deserve more protection. Ejecting Garvin should have been an option for a flagrant foul on a defenseless player.

  48. Fine a guy for a clean hit? It’s absurd!!!

    I’m sorry the guy got hurt, but it was a clean block. He crossed his face, and blocked a player covering a kick.

    They teach it at the lowest levels of football. “Keep your head on a swivel.”

  49. Until this rule is changed, one of the teams should build a roster of 53 punters next year… they would be unstoppable!

  50. No matter who the victim is, this was a deliberate attempt to take someone out, not a play in a sport. The player should at least be fined and suspended, if not kicked out of the league. Off field, this would have been criminally prosecuted as the assault and battery it was. Pittsburgh are a bunch of goons second only to Oakland, historically.

  51. Didn’t this site call out Garvin for the hit in the first place? Now the rule has to go? Pick a lane already!

  52. Let me see if I have this right…

    First these “educated” Steelers fans tell everyone that the rules say once the punt is away the punter is like any other player.


    Now they say that he should be treated like any other player and that the rules are wrong.

    Don’t worry Steeler fans, the refs and the league are trying their best to help you every way possible.

    It’s just that your team is just too bad.

  53. Steelers fan says ‘protect the health of players, all players’. Nobody wants to see injuries. Enforce the rules and improve to equipment. The play in question deserves a penalty, and both players deserved better safety protection. Hits of that type should never be endorsed, and equipment should ensure when an illegal hit happens, both players are as safe as can be made.

  54. This is a ridiculous conversation.

    The “defenseless player rule” simply means for a Punter that you can’t contact his helmet. In the act of kicking or punting, a kicker or punter is VERY defenseless as they are usually on one leg by the time the defender is running full speed at them. They have no chance to defend themselves.

    The rule should be re-written to say that a stiff arm from a ball carrier is okay. The league should also enforce facemask penalties on offensive players who use that stiff arm and then grab the face mask of the would be tackler. I see that A LOT and it is never called. Even offensive and defensive linemen get called with a “hands to the face” penalty, so why is a stiff arm from a ball carrier any different?

    At any rate, the rule doesn’t say you can’t block a kicker or a punter. What it does say (and other rule as well) is that you can’t jack a guy up by lining him up and delivering a helmet to helmet hit, especially leading with the crown of your helmet. That’s the issue here. It was a completely dirty hit, everyone knows it, and it was an illegal hit as well.

    You can thank Hines Ward and several of the other Steelers who would routinely blow up players that were nowhere near the play (on interceptions, etc.) just to take a shot on a guy.

    I’ve played special teams. I’ve thrown some blow up blocks, but I ALWAYS delivered them from the side or front and to the hips, chest area. You can do your job without being dirty and if you have some technique in what you do.

    There is only one reason why you make a hit like that one on Huber. That’s to intentionally hurt somebody. Period, and that stuff has to be out of the game. There are too many injuries that occur in clean plays.

    I also think cut blocks should be taken out of the game as well. There is absolutely no need to be cutting guys’ knees out from under them while they are in the act of moving around. Man up, get on him, and use those things called arms and your body to make your blocks. I have seen comments like, “You will never be able to run the ball at all if you can’t cut block,” from some offensive linemen.

    Really? I think like most people do when things change, you adjust or adapt. If you can’t block without cutting peoples’ legs out, then guess what? You probably aren’t very good and maybe you don’t really need a job in the NFL.

  55. It’s the way the steelers are coached to play. Been that way for years . Funny how James Harrison all of a sudden doesn’t get personal fouls or take heap shots any longer

  56. the wording to the rule is dumb. my problem with the hit is that nfl is trying to get the viscous hits out of the game and that’s exactly what this was. The fact that LB looked at the punter sized him went head on helmet to helmet is what bothered me. Then after the steelers players taunted the bengals laughing about taking out the kicker. I don’t believe that the punter/kickers are defenseless because they can protect themselves, he was blindsided and blown up most likely singled out for his size, not position. The rule the LB was in violation of is already a rule and doesn’t need further legislation from the league.

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