Our new Wednesday segment, dubbed After Further Review, is a platform for pointing out officiating errors that otherwise go unacknowledged by the NFL. But it’s also an opportunity to do something else the NFL currently fails to do — to have a semi-intelligent conversation about good calls or close calls.
It’s also a chance to identify some rule changes that the league may want to consider.
This week’s edition of After Further Review, ended with a discussion of the wicked blow to the head that was absorbed by Steelers running back Najee Harris from Chargers linebacker Kyzir White on Sunday night. Although many assumed that a flag should have been thrown, a source with thorough and extensive knowledge and experience when it comes to the crafting and application of the rules as currently written explained to PFT that Harris did not fall under any of the 11 categories of “defenseless player,” and that he could legally be struck in the head or neck area.
The problem with the hit is that it looked like the kind of thing that, given the current rules, amounts to a violation, because Harris seemed to be defenseless. But it’s currently not a violation, because the official categories don’t include the situation in which Harris found himself.
Non-defenseless players who are not yet tackled can indeed be struck in the head or neck area. The only clear rule that limits contact against non-defenseless runners comes from the general prohibition, adopted in 2018, against lowering the helmet to initiate contact. In this specific case, it was a forearm to the face, not a helmet to the helmet.
So here’s how to spin it forward, if the goal is to minimize brutal hits that can cause injury (and, in turn, make it harder for the league to finish the inevitable push for 18 games, which is definitely coming). The league could craft a new category of defenseless player that includes a player who, as Harris was, is airborne and on the way to the ground, with no realistic chance of landing on his feet. Alternatively (or additionally), a catch-all provision could be added to the current categories of “defenseless” player to permit the officials to protect a player who, for whatever reason, is judged to not be in a position to reasonably protect himself against a blow to the head or neck area.
While the latter approach could become a challenge when it comes to ensuring consistency in the application of the rule (especially with part-time officials), it provides a way to inject a “know it when you see it” element into the question of whether one player applies an impermissibly wicked hit to the head or neck of another player who was not in the position to ward it off or avoid it.
That’s what the rule regarding hits to defenseless players is meant to prohibit. The challenge becomes defining the term “defenseless” broadly enough to encompass all “defenseless” players. Harris was objectively defenseless when he was hit in the face with a forearm, but the rules as currently written don’t acknowledge that reality. That needs to change.