In the AFC wild-card game between the Steelers and Bengals, Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter entered the playing field following a head injury suffered by receiver Antonio Brown. Porter lingered long enough to draw the ire of Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who eventually expressed his dismay with Porter’s antics by bumping into an official, drawing another 15-yard penalty that, when added to the 15-yard penalty triggered by Vontaze Burfict’s concussion-inducing hit on Brown, allowed the Steelers to swipe a win and extend Cincinnati’s postseason skid to 0-for-25 years.
The NFL responded by changing the rules regarding coaches entering the field. But the NFL has insisted that it’s not a formal rule change but a clarification of the existing rules.
Regardless of what the league or anyone else calls it, the Joey Porter Rule shows up in the 2016 rule book as new language aimed at keeping Porter and all other assistant coaches off the field: “The Head Coach may enter the field to check on the welfare of a player who is injured, but no assistant coach may enter the field.”
The rule previously on the books should, if enforced as written, should have kept all coaches off the field: “During any timeout, including an intermission, all playing rules continue in effect. Representatives of either team are prohibited from entering the field, unless they are incoming substitutes, or team attendants or trainers entering to provide for the welfare of a player, and any game-type activities are prohibited on the Field of Play.” However, game officials routinely allowed teams to violate the letter of the rules, with head coaches and assistant coaches and other players streaming out to the field when a player is injured.
The “clarification” of the text operates as a significant restriction to the dynamic that game officials routinely allowed, despite what the rule book otherwise said.
As it relates to the language of the rule book, then, the Joey Porter Rule isn’t a clarification. It’s a codified exception to the existing rule created for head coaches, and head coaches only. As it relates to how the rule book had been applied, the Joey Porter Rule is a change to the rules, requiring Porter and all other assistants to stay on the sidelines at all times.
Moving forward, the question becomes whether the game officials will apply the clarified/changed/whatever rule as written, or whether they’ll continue to allow people who shouldn’t be entering the field of play to do so without consequence.
At a time when mistakes by officials regarding things that happen during a play receive plenty of scrutiny, it’s fair to insist that they stop ignoring the plain language of the rule book, on this and any other rule where the book says one thing and the officials allow something else to happen.
Some would say it’s an elevation of form over substance. The Bengals would say it’s a practice that helped keep them from advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs.