Officiating: Head-To-Head Contact
2013 AFC Championship Game
Baltimore Ravens 27 at New England Patriots 13
First-and-10, New England at NE 39, 12:55 of Q4
(Shotgun) 22-S.Ridley right tackle to NE 47 for 8 yards (31-B.Pollard). FUMBLES (31-B.Pollard), RECOVERED by BAL-97-A.Jones at NE 47. 97-A.Jones to NE 47 for no gain (62-R.Wendell). NE-22-S.Ridley was injured during the play. The Replay Assistant challenged the fumble ruling, and the play was Upheld.
After several dangerous but legal hits in yesterday's Baltimore-New England game (particularly Bernard Pollard's hit on Stevan Ridley), there has been some focus on head-to-head contact that is illegal and contact that is legal. There are two common situations where head-to-head contact is illegal:
Helmet-to-helmet contact with a passer (12-2-8):
(c) A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture -- for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer's head or neck area with the helmet or the facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him.
Helmet-to-helmet contact with a defenseless player (12-2-7):
It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
(a) players in a defenseless posture are ... (2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a pass and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner.
(b) prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is: (1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him.
The NFL currently protects players in situations where they are unable to react a defender and (generally) the defender has an opportunity to purposefully cause serious damage. The rationale behind both of these rules is that the defender has the ability to make the decision to tackle cleanly with the torso and arms, and that failure to do so should be penalized; A quarterback is largely stationary and being attacked from multiple angles, and the quintessential defenseless receiver is devoting his entire attention to catching the ball, not the safety bearing down on him. Obviously the reality is more complicated (and the rules regarding passers more draconian than those regarding receivers), but these rules recognize that in certain situations the chaos of the football game subsides to a degree and tremendous power to attack in a safe or unsafe manner is put in the hands of one or more defenders. While the rules do occasionally result in penalties for minor conduct, officials are trained to not second-guess themselves on safety fouls and know that the league will never mark them down for calling a marginal personal foul.
Contrast a defenseless receiver or a harried quarterback with a standard running play. Near the line of scrimmage, there are gigantic linemen attempting to shove other linemen around, possibly a fullback, tight end or other blocker, and a mass of defenders converging in an attempt to make a play. Away from the line of scrimmage, defenders are juking and running at a high rate of speed and defensive backs are trying to square and tackle in the open field. If the rules against helmet-to-helmet contact are in place to discourage a defender from taking advantage in a dangerous fashion, the lack of a rule for ball carriers is a tacit acknowledgment that in most situations the defender does not have the same opportunity to deliberately cause mayhem.
Complicating this point is that the defenders aren't the only ones using their helmets as weapons. Carriers frequently lower their heads to provide a smaller target to tackle or, in Ridley's case, to provide extra power when attempting to overrun a defender. This has led to a sparse few calls to outlaw helmet-to-helmet contact altogether. It is possible; high school ball is making moves in that direction, and safety rules tend to percolate up from lower levels to the pros. However, in practice the limited sanctions on offensive players using their helmet as a weapon are basically ignored, so it is impossible to gauge if any rules change is having real effect.
The other and more fundamental problem with this approach is that there is no moment of advantage for either player in most situations. The action surrounding the carrier is far more difficult to predict, and significant portion of the time a carrier leading with his helmet makes contact with a defender's torso, which is only a danger to the runner, or a defender attempting to tackle low butts heads with a player attempting to defend himself. Every game would be refball, until players simply ran completely upright the entire game, which would look ridiculous and lead to some awful football. The rulebook includes a few rules against a defender leading with a head against a player's body (generally the rules against launching and spearing), but they are incredibly difficult to enforce in real time and are precisely the sort of rules that the media and fans eviscerate the officials for calling.
Personally, I think the league is looking at the problem backwards. Instead of merely trying to prevent damage to the players' heads (although they should probably be working harder on that, too), the NFL should be looking at ways to construct a helmet that is less likely to be used as a weapon. The helmet, firmly strapped in place, connected to a series of tough bones through a small veneer of tissue, and constructed of a hard plastic composite is easily the most rigid part of a player north of his cleats. It is going to be used to spear, and launch, and rough the passer and take out a receiver or runner. The cases involved are too marginal and the penalty too small compared to the potential gain for the unscrupulous player. That is why players on both sides are using their heads as battering rams, and that is why we're seeing such horrific but legal plays as we witnessed on Sunday.