Week 1: Texans at Chargers (video)
The Competition Committee looked at a specific instance of dangerous play at the request of players: the vulnerability of the center when he is performing a long snap for a field goal kick. The Competition Committee answered, the owners approved, officiating vice president Dean Blandino worked on the enforcement. The solutions were to add low-block prohibitions and add the center/long snapper to the list of “defenseless players” that get extra protection. And, in the last game of the opening weekend of the season, we saw the first practical instance of its use.
It turns out that this first instance might have followed the spirit, but not the letter, of the rule.
Chargers special teams lineman Cam Thomas appeared to rush the kick by going over the top of center Jon Weeks. Immediately, umpire Bruce Stritesky saw this a violation of the new rule, seeing as Weeks, still in a bent-over posture from the snap, was vulnerable. Referee Scott Green announced the penalty under the defenseless player rule. The Texans took the three points from the field goal off the board, accepted the 15-yard penalty, and scored a touchdown on the next play, a key part of the Texans comeback push in the fourth quarter.
Even though Weeks was being attacked with an inability to bend upwards to protect his neck, it is not clear that this particular play falls under the defenseless player protection. Even though Blandino told Football Zebras before the season that the rule was intended to avoid the defense from “crashing down on the center,” this over-the-top maneuver by Thomas might actually be allowable.
By adding the center to the defenseless player list, he may not be hit by a defender, according to Rule 12-2-7(b) in the following — and only the following — ways:
- Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder …
- Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body
- Illegally launching into a defenseless opponent [leaving feet and using helmet to initiate contact]
This standard does not seem to be met, even though the center’s head or neck area cannot be protected. ESPN guest rules analyst Jim Tunney said that this was a judgement call by the umpire, which, in typical Tunney fashion, likely means he feels the call is wrong.
Blandino appeared on NFL Network and said this was not a correct ruling:
This is not the intent of the rule as it was written. The rule is to protect the snapper on a field goal or an extra point from a direct forcible blow to the head or neck area, or with the crown [or] forehead/hairline parts of the helmet to the body. It was not designed to prohibit any contact with the snapper, which is what happened on this play. … It’s a judgment call by the umpire, he’s looking at that, and in his judgment, he felt that it was enough for a foul. And in our review today, we felt that it was not.