Week 15: Bengals at Steelers (video)
It was a breakaway punt return, and Bengals punter Kevin Huber was positioning himself to stop or at least slow down Antonio Brown’s track towards the end zone. Brown’s teammate, Terence Garvin helped clear the obstruction by flattening Huber with a helmet-to-the-chin blast. The force of the hit fractured Huber’s jaw, and the only solid thing Huber will have in his mouth for the foreseeable future is the gauze that packed his mouth as he left the field.
Garvin should have been penalized for a delivering an illegal hit on a defenseless player (as we detailed in our quick calls). In the traffic headed towards the end zone, referee Ed Hochuli (who is primary on the punter) did not see the illegal part of the hit (h/t Deadspin for isolation of the hit).
Garvin will no doubt be fined for his hit, for which the minimum fine is $21,000 for a first offense. (The rookie linebacker has not been fined before.) But there is talk in league circles that Garvin could be suspended for a game.
A league source told Football Zebras that “they are talking possible suspension” in the Monday morning executive sessions at the league office. The league’s own documentation to the players handed out during preseason does not preclude that a suspension could be heaped upon a fine in extraordinary cases:
Please note the League’s rules that protect against illegal hits to defenseless players and that prohibit initiating contact with the crown of the helmet . These hits are dangerous and may cause long-term damage. Violations of these rules may result in on-field penalties and discipline by the League. Clubs have emphasized that when circumstances warrant, suspension (even for first time offenders) is appropriate discipline.
The bold and underline is part of the original document. Continuing:
As part of the National Football League’s emphasis on protection of the head, players who deliver blows to the head or neck area of defenseless players when there are no mitigating circumstances may be subject to suspension.
The characteristics of such hits include when: (1) the player delivering the blow has an unobstructed path to his opponent; (2) the position of the player receiving the blow is not materially affected by any other player; and (3) the contact is avoidable. Violations that include all of these characteristics could lead to suspension, even on a first offense.
Huber was a defenseless player by rule, as punters have that protection for the duration of a kick through the end of the down. There are many reasons for this.
I interviewed the late Giants punter Dave Jennings in 19 â€” uh, the year doesn’t matter â€” about the conditioning regimen for punters. He said he lifted weights for muscle tone, but he was not looking for build. So, we are talking about players that are intentionally not of typical athletic structure. They also are minimally padded, because they need a range of motion for the kick. Most importantly, if a team loses a punter during the game, an inexperienced placekicker who takes over punting duties might pooch some awful punts, giving a tremendous advantage to the opponent. Therefore, even if a punter engages in an attempt to tackle a runner, he is justifiably defenseless from receiving a bell-ringing hit.
As for hits on defenseless players drawing an immediate suspension, there is precedent. In 2009, Panthers defensive back Dante Wesley was suspended one game for essentially running through Buccaneers punt returner Clifton Smith.
The hit on Huber was violent enough to place him on injured reserve. It easily could have been an ejectable offense, and certainly a one-game suspension. But, judging by disciplinary actions this season, a one-game suspension is generally downgraded on appeal to a substantial fine.
If the league issues the standard minimum $21,000 fine, then it has lost the ability to enforce player safety.
Update 12/18: Garvin was fined $25,000 — or 19% above the league minimum for a first offense.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 18, 2013
Image: Cincinnati Bengals photo