NFL owners will vote this week on a rule proposal that will expand the definition of “defenseless” players to include punt and kickoff returners even after they have caught the kick.
The proposal, which was put forward by the Competition Committee and will be voted upon by the owners, expands defenseless player protection to a kickoff or punt returner who is in possession of the ball but has not had time to avoid or ward off an opponent.
Defenseless players are protected from forcible hits to the head or neck area, hits from an opponent who lowers his helmet to make forcible contact, and hits from an opponent who launches into him. Kickoff and punt returners are already considered defenseless when they are attempting to field a kick that is in the air. But this proposal would extend the “defenseless” definition to include a returner “who has not had time to clearly become a runner.”
In other words, a return man can’t be drilled the moment he catches the ball. Instead, he has to have the ball long enough to give himself a chance to protect himself in some way, such as moving out of the way or giving a stiff arm.
NFL owners almost always support player safety rules that the Competition Committee has recommended, so this one seems like a safe bet to pass.