By a unanimous, 32-0 vote, the NFL owners passed three rule changes — or modifications — which deal directly with player safety. The rules that were addressed include the criteria of a defenseless player, the definition of launching, and the guidelines for contact to a quarterback’s head.
One new criterion — and perhaps the most controversial — adopted for the definition of a defenseless player is that it is now illegal to hit a receiver who “has not clearly become a runner.” In theory, this is a good idea because a receiver who has not yet started to run with the ball really isn’t prepared to defend himself from a vicious hit.
However, I’m not so sure it’ll be easy for defenders to slow down when they’re running full speed at a receiver. The speed of the game is so quick that we may see a dramatic difference in this part of the game as players have to learn to slow down before making a tackle on a receiver.
What makes this controversial is that it’ll be difficult for defenders and officials to determine in live, game speed when a receiver actually becomes a runner. However, it’ll be easy for the league office to assess fines after the fact. After all, determining when a receiver becomes a runner will likely have the same standards as determining a completed catch and fumble. (The fumble rule: if a receiver maintains possession of the ball, has two feet on the ground, and “makes a football move,” then it’s considered a fumble if he drops the ball of if it is knocked from his hands.)
Another defenseless player criterion adopted is the prohibition of hitting a kicker or punter during a return. I’m not sure how this will be enforced, especially if that kicker or punter attempts to make a tackle. Does this mean return teams will be unable to block the kicker or punter?
Similarly, defenders cannot hit quarterbacks following a change of possession. After a quarterback has thrown an interception or if an offensive player fumbles the ball to the other team, the quarterback can’t be hit. Does that also mean he can’t be blocked if he tries to tackle the defender with the ball?
As for the new “launching” rules, a player who uses any part of his helmet in a tackle will be penalized. And, a defender cannot leave his feet “prior to contact to spring forward or upward.” What this means is that a defender has to keep his feet, wrap up, and drive through the tackle like they’re taught to do as kids. Or, if they still prefer to deliver hits instead of wrapping up, they can do so as long as they don’t leave their feet. If I were a coach, though, I’d prefer fundamentals over highlight hits.
Finally, the NFL has adopted changes to the rule prohibiting contact to a quarterback’s head. As I’m sure many fans are aware, under the old rule a defender would be penalized if he so much as tapped a quarterback on the helmet. That was certainly an infuriating call; it has happened to a few Bears over the years, most notably Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers. Now, officials will be able to use their judgement whether contact to the helmet was intentional or accidental, and if the contact was considered “grazing”, no penalty would be called.