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‘Defenseless player’ definition upped in ’12



2012 rule changes

The NFL has added to the list of situations where a player is deemed “defenseless” as it pertains to hits to the head. The rule protects defenseless players from jarring blows to the head or neck by an opponent; this includes not only helmet-to-helmet contact, but also contact from a shoulder or forearm. Generally, the ball carrier who is under his own power is considered to be fair game for helmet-to-helmet hits, because the runner can easily avoid or induce the contact. However, defenseless players cannot avoid that contact, and those hits not only are subject to a 15-yard penalty, but invariably are subject to a fine no lower than $21,000. For the 2012 season, the league added a player involved in a crackback block is a defenseless player. A crackback block usually administered by a player lined up as a receiver, who turns in to engage in a block rather than run a pass route. As the defender is unaware that the receiver has become an active blocker, these tend to be surprise blocks, and thus the defender has no way of protecting himself. The video shows an illegal crackback by aiming low at the knees; the new expanded rule now makes a blow to the head on this type of block illegal as well. Legal crackback blocks can still be made between the helmet and the knees as long as it is not in the back. Defenseless players who are protected from dangerous hard hits include the following, from the Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a):

1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass (passing posture);

2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player;

3) A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;

4) A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;

5) A player on the ground;

6) A kicker/punter during the kick or during the return [in addition to other restrictions against a kicker/punter];

7) A quarterback at any time after a change of possession [in addition to other restrictions against a quarterback after a change of possession];

8) A player who receives a “blindside” block when the path of the offensive blocker is toward or parallel to his own end line, and he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side;

9) A player who is protected from an illegal crackback block;

10) The offensive player who attempts a snap during a Field Goal attempt or a Try Kick.

Excerpt updated to 2014 rulebook, which includes item 10 and some slight wording refinements.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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