Saturday, October 23, 2010

NFL Officials Do not Understand Own Helmet Contact Rules! -- Week 6 hits

People that claim to have knowledge of the NFL rules apparently don't have the patience to read them or the ability to comprehend what it is they are reading.

All week talk show hosts, former players and even NFL officials have made statements that obviously confuse the different parts of the unnecessary roughness rules.  One of those statements that is irksome is that running backs are fair game for shots delivered by a defender's helmet because they are not "defenseless" (see Harrison v. Cribbs).

So confused is the issue that the NFL V.P. of football operations came on Mike and Mike and demonstrated he has only a cursory knowledge of the very rule he was explaining.

To shed some light on the subject, let's apply the rules in the context of each of the hits that are being discussed with the benefit of video:

Harrison hit on Joshua Cribbs:

For education purposes.  Original owner owns all rights to video and sound.

The two separate and distinct concepts at issue are whether Harrison intentionally used his helmet as a weapon (lead with his head) and whether Cribbs was in the grasp of a tackler with his forward progress stopped when Harrison delivered the shot to Cribbs' head.  The misnomer that has perpetuated this week is that "all bets are off because Cribbs was in possession of the ball as a runner."  The NFL's VP of football operations appears to have adopted this misstatement on the Mike and Mike radio show, but it is clearly wrong in at least two respects that are well-illustrated by the Harrison hit on Cribbs.

Article 8(f) states in pertinent part:

"If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures . . ." (Emphasis added.)  

Accordingly, it is unnecessary roughness to "spear" (i.e., use the helmet as a weapon against any player) on any play, regardless of whether the player is in a defenseless position.  If Harrison lead with the crown of his helmet, the hit must be penalized under rule.  This is emphasized by a later part of the rule that states: "The provisions of section (f) do not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or noncrown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on an opponent."  Notice that this does not exclude contact made by the crown portion of the helmet.  Why, you might ask?  Because, as discussed below, contact with the crown portion of the helmet is by its nature intentional.

As an aside, I think that all of the arguments that enforcement of the spearing rule will handicap defensive players are hogwash.  Everyone who ever played a down of football in his life knows (and was taught) to keep his head up through contact.  A sticker on the back of each helmet of every kid who plays Pop Warner to every NFL player warns against lowering the head to deliver a blow.

View the Sticker attached to the back of every NFL helmet

A player who bows his head into contact necessarily does it with the intention of making contact with the crown of his helmet.  There is really no argument to be made otherwise.  That's why the rule limits consideration of "incidental contact" to contact using the "noncrown parts" of the helmet.  Bow your head into contact or keep it upright -- the speed of the game has no effect on this decision.

Accordingly, it doesn't matter if Cribbs was a receiver or a ball carrier or an offensive lineman -- when Harrison speared him it is a penalty by rule.  And it doesn't matter whether Harrison landed contact on Cribbs' helmet, much less whether he intended to do so. The "spearing" penalty of subsection (f) does not require "helmet to helmet" contact.  A reading of the rules, in fact, shows that none of the separate subparts of rule 8, each explaining different violations, requires a tackler's helmet to hit another another player's helmet for a penalty to be called.

As opposed to use of the tackler's helmet as a weapon addressed in subpart 8(f), the separate rule in subpart (g) deals with blows to the helmet of a defenseless player and prohibits not only blows delivered by the tackler's helmet, but his shoulder or forearm as well.

Even the definition of a "defenseless player" to whom "special attention" should be given under subpart 8(f) and to whom subpart 8(g) applies has been confused by statements that a ball carrier cannot be a defenseless player.  The rule specifically says otherwise: "Note: Defenseless players in (f) and (g) shall include . . . (iii) a runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped."

So, the two things to consider when watching the video of Harrison's hit on Cribbs are: (1) did Harrison lead into the tackle with the crown of his helmet (a subpart 8(f) violation) and/or (2) was Cribbs a "defenseless player" whom Harrison hit in the head (a separate violation under subpart 8(g)).

Harrison unquestionably lead with his helmet.  While it is arguable that his intent was not to impact Cribbs in the helmet (but in some other part of his body), that does not matter for purposes of the penalty addressed in subpart 8(f).  The intent to be ascertained is whether Harrison intended to deliver the hit using his own helmet.  Harrison did not assume a defensive position with a runner was coming down hill at him.  Instead. Harrison approached a runner from the side when the runner was in the grasp of another tackler and directed the crown of his helmet into contact.  Nobody watching the video can argue that he made any attempt to execute a "conventional tackle."  Harrison's arms never extend, his shoulders never square for the hit, his head bows down instead of staying in an upright position into contact -- Harrison made an affirmative decision to deliver the hit with the crown of his helmet.  Again, it doesn't matter that Cribbs is a runner or whether Harrison intended to hit Cribbs' helmet.

It was not a "clean hit" and a 15-yard penalty should have been assessed.  Again, it's simply a matter of Harrison keeping his head up through contact.  The rules specifically instruct that the official is to flag the player even on close calls -- "If in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official( s) should always call unnecessary roughness."

As to the separate issue of whether Cribbs was "defenseless" so as to warrant special attention under 8(f) (i.e., consideration of disqualification as permitted by rule -- "The player may be disqualified if the action is judged by the official(s) to be flagrant"), or to bring the separate violation of subpart 8(g) into play, it's a tougher call.  There may be an argument that Cribbs was in the grasp with his forward progress stopped.  But, regardless of that discretionary decision, there was already a penalty under subpart 8(f) of the rule.

I'm not sure whether the league office took this hit (and subpart 8(f)) into consideration in issuing the $75,000 fine for Harrison's hit on Massaquoi -- it would have been an appropriate consideration if they did.  Apparently, the league is looking to "special attention" situations of 8(f)-(h) in assessing fines and determined that Cribbs' forward progress was not stopped in failing to issue a separate fine for this hit.

In sum, the game referees blew the call, big time.   Considering that the league seems to be focusing on "defenseless player" situations, the league office was within the rule's discretion in not assessing an additional fine.  That said, if the league office is really serious about protecting its players, it should have fined the hit to discourage spearing.

Harrison hit on Massaquoi:

For educational purposes only.  All sound and video are property of the original owner.

As Harrison did not deliver this particular blow with his helmet, but with his shoulder and forearm, this is a subpart 8(g) or 8(h) penalty analysis, the subpart 8(f) "spearing" violation does not apply.

Subpart 8(h) is the "launching" penalty that applies exclusively to receivers.  It states "If a receiver has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself, a defensive player is prohibited from launching (springing forward and upward) into him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet, facemask, shoulder, or forearm to forcibly strike the receiver’s head or neck area—even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet, facemask, shoulder, or forearm is lower than the receiver’s neck."

The act of "launching" is defined as "springing forward and upward by a player who leaves his feet to make contact on the receiver."

It is obvious from the video that Harrison springs into the receiver with his forearm and shoulder.  You can see from the video that he jumps into the receiver with an upwards trajectory and delivers a blow to the helmet.  The argument that the receiver was shifting in an attempt to catch the ball is again hogwash.  Harrison, leaves his feet to deliver the hit.  He was clearly springing up and into the receiver so that his initial contact would have been at the shoulder/neck area and continued through the neck/head area even if the receiver didn't move.  The rule expressly states that it does not matter if the initial contact is made lower than the neck -- it is nevertheless a penalty if the neck or head are ultimately stricken.

Again, the officials blew the call.  Again, the league office got it right.

The game officials should have been reviewed for poor performance.

Alternatively the hit by Harrison on Massaquoi would also be a penalty under subpart 8(g).  The subtle distinction between subparts 8(g) and 8(h) is that 8(g) deals with players in the act of attempting to catch the ball, while subpart 8(h) applies even when receivers have made the catch and have not yet returned to a position where they can defend themselves.

Robinson hit on Jackson:

For educational purposes only.  All sound and video are property of the original owner.

Here, again, we are talking about Rule subparts 8(g) and 8(h) -- as these were hits on a "defenseless" receiver.  A penalty was called on this play.  It's my opinion that, under the rule as written, a penalty should not have been called.

Again, Robinson does not use his helmet as a weapon, so subpart 8(f) is not applicable.  While Jackson is clearly in a defenseless position, the rule, as written, does not prohibit hitting a player in a defenseless position -- or even launching into a defenseless player.  What it prohibits is hitting the receiver in the receiver's "head or neck area" before the receiver has returned to a position where he can defend himself.   Here, contact was made by Robinson using his shoulder on Jackson's shoulder.  It does not appear from the video that Robinson ever contacted Jackson's neck or head area.

As previously discussed, the rules specifically state that any benefit of the doubt should be given to throwing a flag, however.  So the blown call was not as problematic under rule as the missed calls in the Browns/Steelers game.

I have a hard time determining how the league office imposed a $50,000 fine on the hit with the benefit of hindsight, though.  The video shows that it was a clean hit within the letter of the rule.

Meriweather hit on Heap:

For educational purposes only.  All sound and video are property of the original owner.

There's not really a question on this one.  Meriweather lead with his head, launched, and made impact at Heap's head.  The intent was clear.  It was a violation of  all the separate subparts of 8(f), 8(g) and 8(h) of the rule.

Meriweather apologized for the hit.  The penalty and fine were appropriate.  The only question is whether the officials should have taken the additional step of disqualifying him during the game.  That's a discretionary call, which I'd expect to see enforced more regularly in the future.

Conclusion

Breaking down the rules, it's pretty clear that the referees failed to throw two flags in the Browns/Steelers game against Harrison.  In fact, instead of getting off "Scott free" during the game for illegal hits that injured two opponents, Harrison's disqualification should have been on the table under the current rules.

As an aside, Harrison's "drama queen" reaction to the fine and Tomlin's insistence that Harrison's hits were clean would seem to warrant a visit from NFL officials to instruct the Steelers on the rule requirements.  If only the NFL officials  in charge of this mess understood their own rules, that is.

It's also equally clear that the fine against Robinson is an expansion of the rule -- the hit didn't warrant a penalty as the rule is currently written, much less a hefty fine.  The NFL is sending mixed messages here that legitimately may confuse  players and coaches.  Is the NFL legislating against hits that cause injury, regardless of whether they are within the letter of the rule, or is it getting tough on enforcing the penalties already on the books?

Finally, what's most vexing from a breakdown of these rules is that the talking heads addressing these rules have never even read them.  With respect to the four hits that have been scrutinized this week, three different rules are in play, not one.  The rule does not require "helmet to helmet" contact.  That's just one of the situations that meet the rule.  With all of the "experts" opining on these hits, it does not appear that one of them  (save Mike Florio) understands this important distinction.

The rule in its entirety is re-printed below.

Article 8 There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to: (a) striking an opponent anywhere with the foot or any part of the leg with a whipping motion; (b) contacting a runner out of bounds; Note: Defensive players must make an effort to avoid contact. Players on defense are responsible for knowing when a runner has crossed the boundary line, except in doubtful cases where he might step on a boundary line and continue parallel with it. (c) a member of the receiving team cannot go out of bounds and contact a kicking team player out of bounds. If this occurs on a kick from scrimmage, post-possession rules would apply if appropriate (9-5-1); (d) running or diving into, or throwing the body against or on a ball carrier who falls or slips to the ground untouched and makes no attempt to advance, before or after the ball is dead; (e) unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (i) is out of the play or (ii) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead; or throwing the runner to the ground after the ball is dead;

Impermissible Use of Helmet and Facemask

If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures, including but not limited to: (1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; or (2) Lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the “hairline” or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body; or (3) “Launching” (springing forward and upward) into a defenseless player, or otherwise striking him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet or facemask to forcibly strike the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face—even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the defenseless player’s neck. (Examples: a defender buries his facemask into a defenseless player’s high chest area, but the defender’s trajectory as he leaps into the defenseless player causes the defender’s helmet to strike the defenseless player violently in the head or face; or a defender, using a face-on posture or with his head slightly lowered, hits a defenseless player in an area below the defenseless player’s neck, then the defender’s head moves upward, resulting in strong contact by the defender’s mask or helmet with the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face [an example is the so-called “dip and rip” technique]). Note: The provisions of section (f) do not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or noncrown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on an opponent. 

(g) if the initial force of the contact by a defender’s helmet (including facemask), forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of a defenseless player. Note: Defenseless players in (f) and (g) shall include (i) a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass; (ii) a receiver catching or attempting to catch a pass; (iii) a runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped; (iv) a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air; and (v) a player on the ground at the end of a play.

(h) If a receiver has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself, a defensive player is prohibited from launching (springing forward and upward) into him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet, facemask, shoulder, or forearm to forcibly strike the receiver’s head or neck area—even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet, facemask, shoulder, or forearm is lower than the receiver’s neck.

Note: Launching is defined as springing forward and upward by a player who leaves his feet to make contact on the receiver. (i) a kicker/punter, who is standing still or fading backwards after the ball has been kicked, is out of the play and must not be unnecessarily contacted by the receiving team through the end of the play or until he assumes a distinctly defensive position. During the kick or during the return, if the initial force of the contact by a defender’s helmet (including facemask), forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of the kicker/punter, it is a foul.

(j) any player who grabs a helmet opening of an opponent and forcibly twists, turns, or pulls his head.

(k) Illegal contact with the helmet against the knee of the snapper during an attempt for a field goal or kick try.

Penalty: For unnecessary roughness: Loss of 15 yards. The player may be disqualified if the action is judged by the official(s) to be flagrant. Note: If in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official( s) should always call unnecessary roughness.