Letter of the law

There's a fine, but clear line between a legal and an illegal hit in today's NFL

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OK, I’m going to try and explain to you why the helmet-first hit that Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier unloaded on Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard last week was, by the spirit of NFL rules, perfectly legal. I should say, first, that the reason I dug into this at all is because I feel strongly that by the letter of the NFL rules, it was clearly and unquestionably illegal, and I didn’t get the NFL’s lethargic reaction to it.

As you will see, SPIRIT and LETTER when it comes to NFL rules are very different things.

First, a quick recap of the play.

In the third quarter of last week’s game, the Cincinnati Bengals had the ball in field-goal range. They trailed Pittsburgh 15-0. It was third-and-9 as Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron flipped a quick pass to his right to Bernard, who caught it with his back to the Steelers defense. He caught the ball up around his helmet, planted his left leg and turned clockwise. Just as Bernard set himself to run, Shazier came rushing, head down, and crashed the crown of his helmet into Bernard’s facemask. It was, by all accounts, a vicious hit. But was it legal?

There are two rules to consider, one which is fairly easy to dismiss. That first rule is the one about defenseless receivers. If Bernard is considered defenseless — defined as a player “attempting to catch a pass or who has completed a catch but has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner” — then Shazier is not allowed to hit him with his helmet, no exceptions. If Bernard had been ruled defenseless, it was an automatic foul.

But Bernard was not ruled defenseless. There are some who might argue that contention, but I think the consensus would agree that he had become a runner when Shazier hit him. So, let’s move on to the more controversial rule.

That rule states, in seemingly clear terms, that it is illegal to hit anyone (defenseless or not) with the crown of your helmet. I will print the entire rule here for you to see:

RULE 12, SECTION 2, ARTICLE 8. INITIATING CONTACT WITH THE CROWN OF THE HELMET. It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.

Penalty: Loss of 15 yards. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down. The player may be disqualified if the action is flagrant.

OK, so, looking at the letter of the rule, Shazier’s hit seems a straightforward penalty. I don’t know where the “flagrant” line begins or ends, but having seen the play over and over, I don’t think anyone could doubt that:

1. Shazier initiated VERY forcible contact with the top/crown of his helmet.

2. Both players were well outside the tackle box.

3. It was not incidental. I’m not sure that there’s a lawyer in America who could win the “Shazier’s hit was incidental contact” case.

So there doesn’t seem an argument to be made against the hit. The rule is clear.

Only, apparently, it isn’t clear at all. While the rule may read as a blanket statement (no crown/top of helmet hits), that is not how the NFL interprets it. To understand the interpretation, you must understand why the rule was added before the 2013 season.

The rule, according to former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira, was put in to stop a very specific kind of crown-of-the-helmet hit: The player-collision hit.

“I remember the exact description they used,” Pereira says. “They said, ‘like two rams banging horns together.’ They didn’t want two players lined up against each other lowering their heads. Initially, it was the runner they were talking about. They didn’t want him lowering his head. Then they also didn’t want the tackler doing that, but it was the runner who was the reason for the rule.”

Pereira points out, rightly, that the RUNNER is the first person mentioned in the rule. He says this is because it was the runner lowering his head that inspired this rule.

And so while the rule as written may APPEAR to say that any hit with the crown of the helmet is illegal, that is not how the NFL sees the rule. And that is not the instruction that officials are given.

“You’re certainly right, as it is written, you could take this to mean that all hits with the crown of the helmets are illegal,” Pereira says. “But you could do that in lots of places in the rulebook There are a lot of vague comments in the rulebook that don’t adequately explain the spirit of the rule … That’s why I say all the time that there’s the rule, and then there’s the philosophy and intent of the rule, which is often not codified.”

In the Shazier-Bernard case, according to current NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino, you need three things to trigger a crown-of-the-helmet personal foul penalty.

1. Shazier would have to line up his opponent (see “two rams banging horns”). In other words, they would have to be coming right at each other.

2. Shazier would have to lower his head.

3. Shazier would have to make forcible contact.

He clearly did Nos. 2 and 3. But because Bernard and Shazier were not on the same vertical line — Bernard was going toward the sideline, Shazier was going straight down the field — the officials ruled that Shazier did not line up his opponent. On replay, Blandino and Pereira both confirm that it was a legal hit.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Do you know how many times the crown-of-the-helmet personal foul was called this season?

Zero times.

Do you know how many times the crown-of-the-helmet personal foul was called last season?

Zero times.

When I say to Pereira that it seems strange for a rule that is written one way to be understood a different way, he points out another rule, the NFL’s unnecessary roughness rule. That rule is 338 words long, but we’re just interested in subsection (i).

Unnecessary roughness includes:

(i) using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily.

As Pereira says, that rule — read by the letter — would also seem to apply to Shazier’s hit.

“Ram” is defined as “to roughly force something into place.”

“Butt” is defined as “to hit with the head or horns.”

Spear is defined as “to pierce or strike with a spear or other pointed object,” so that one might not apply.

Violently is defined as “you know, with violence.”

Shazier certainly did most of that stuff. But that sort of unnecessary roughness is almost never called. In fact, you probably don’t need the “almost” — it’s never called.

So there’s your answer: The Shazier hit, by the spirit of the NFL rules, is indeed legal because they were not running right at each other. For those people waiting for Shazier to be fined, forget about it. This was a legal hit by today’s rules. If you want the hard and cynical truth, the referee’s mistake was whistling the play dead. Bernard had fumbled and, with the legal hit, Shazier should have been given a chance to score.

I should add her: I totally disagree with all of this. That hit is EXACTLY what the NFL needs to be discouraging in the strongest terms and it should be outlawed. I suspect there will be some adjustment to the rule. Pereira’s experience tells him that the league will take another look at crown-of-the-helmet hits in the offseason. He adds, though, that it’s already incredibly hard to officiate football because the game is so fast and so violent.

“Let’s say you put in a targeting penalty like they have in college,” he suggests. “What happens? In college, they give themselves an out because all targeting penalties can be reviewed. Will the NFL review penalties? Will the NFL eject players for hitting with the helmet? How do you determine intent? There are a million questions.

“Do (officials) make mistakes? Yes. Is it hard? Yes. But to me, the biggest question we have to ask, ‘Have these new rules changed the culture?’ And I’m one who believes that it has. I think defenders are a lot less likely to go after receivers in dangerous ways. That’s the important part because the players define how this game is played.”