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Zebra Report: 'Helmet to Helmet'

Jan 6, 2010 – 10:00 AM
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Matt Snyder

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Pat White helmet to helmetZebra Report is FanHouse's analysis of actual NFL rules and how they are to be applied ... because most fans think they could do a better job than the NFL officials, yet definitely could not. Click here for an introduction as to how we do things.

As usual, there were several calls drawing the ire of fans across the nation this past week, but the biggest one -- as far as I could tell -- is the devastating hit from Ike Taylor that knocked Pat White out. It was vicious and it was definitely a "helmet to helmet" hit in the literal sense -- as their helmets collided head-on. But a penalty wasn't called, so does that mean the hit was legal or the officials made a mistake in not calling anything?

First of all, it's actually kind of misleading to call the penalty "helmet to helmet" so openly. Every time the helmets of two players make contact, I get emails from several readers asking why it wasn't called. It's not definitely a penalty for two helmets to touch. That's bound to happen pretty often during the course of any football game, and most of the time it's not illegal.

When a ball-carrier lowers his head at the last possible second and a defender hits him "helmet to helmet," it will never get called because the offensive player inadvertently initiated this sort of contact.

Now, the White play is tough. The rule states it's illegal to "violently or unnecessarily" use the helmet as a weapon on an opponent. You could easily argue Taylor's hit ended up being both violent and unnecessary, in fact, I don't even think it's an argument that it qualifies as violent. There's nothing explicit in the rulebook about the offensive player accidentally causing himself to be hit in the helmet by either slipping or diving when the defensive player wasn't certain that would happen (it appears White did both), but that's only common sense -- in the same way it is not written that a defensive player can't turn his back at the last possible second prior to being blocked and draw a penalty for illegal block in the back.

I could see this one going either way, but I merely grabbed this play to explain that it's not always an illegal act when the helmets of two players happen to touch. Each play should be examined on a case-by-case basis. It's awful that White got hurt and was knocked out cold. It was a chilling scene; a reminder how violent the game of football is. But a yellow flag and 15 yards wouldn't have magically cured White. It was just one of those ugly plays that happens from time to time.

• Another unnecessary roughness-type question came through my inbox about a Week 16 call. Reader Gary submits: "In the third quarter, Asante Samuel intercepts the ball and Macho Harris hits the receiver to take him out of the play. The hit looked clean to me, and not helmet to helmet, spearing, or anything that would warrant a penalty call. This is football and clean hits are part of the game. That call changed the flow of the game and really effected field position. Why was the call made? Also, why was the ball placed so far back after it was announced it was a fifteen yard penalty?"

As to why, I can't speak to it specifically. As usual, the highlights don't include this play. Once again I'll complain about not being able to get full game replays online when you pay the hundreds of dollars for NFL Sunday Ticket. I can only watch so many plays (I'm only human, dammit). Anyway, there are plenty of ways to get an unnecessary roughness penalty without using the helmet. A shoulder to the head on a defenseless receiver would definitely get called, as would Harris leaving his feet and launching himself into the defenseless receiver. It's my best guess that it was one of these (if it happened immediately as Samuel was picking the ball off, he would still be considered a defenseless receiver). As to the spot, the penalty was a live ball foul, so it was assessed as a spot foul. The penalty happened, according to the game log, at the five yard line, so it was taken half the distance backward and negated Samuel's entire 40 yards return.

• Brian Billick as a color analyst is going to give me a heart attack. On the other hand, I shouldn't be so aggravated, as he's actually a perfect illustration that both coaches and announcers can't be trusted when it comes to rule interpretations. The latest example was during Dwayne Jarrett's touchdown against the Saints in Week 17. You can watch it by clicking here and checking out the 1:03 mark. The play went to a booth review. Anyone who has been watching football this season has heard of the constant references to the Week 1 play involving Louis Murphy of the Raiders. When a receiver makes a catch as he's falling to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball through the ground. That being said, if a player is able to take a step or two -- which Jarrett clearly did -- he now has fully completed the catch. It was pretty obvious the officials were reviewing whether or not the football crossed the plane of the goal line before or after his knee hit the ground. Yet the entire time they were reviewing the play, Billick was concentrating on when the ball hit the ground. It was quite excruciating.

• If you were like me Sunday, one of the things you were watching was Chris Johnson's quest for 2,000 yards on the ground and hopefully many more. Thus, it was incredibly disheartening to see his 62-yard would-be touchdown run called back for holding. Click here and go to the 1:25 mark to watch the play. Now, this was a call made with integrity. It was a good block until Johnson cleared the defender, but the blocker clearly held after Johnson skated by. The blocker should have simply let go and the run would have stood. I do have to say this, though. As a fan (not an official): c'mon! Just let that go. There were no playoff implications and the hold had no effect on whether or not Johnson went to the house. That defender was never going to catch Johnson. The rules don't say you can let something like that factor in, because the block was made at the point of attack, but it seems pretty easy to conclude the hold didn't happen until after Johnson made it through. It was technically a hold, by the book, but it was one where I would have loved to see the officials look the other way. Fortunately, Johnson still surpassed the vaunted 2,000-yard mark, but he could have made a run at the all-time record if not for the holding.

• Reader Paul asked something about last year's Super Bowl (hey, it's never too late in the Zebra Report ... we aim to please): In last year's Super Bowl, the Cardinals were flagged for a penalty on the last play of the first half when James Harrison scored his legendary touchdown. Why was that penalty not assessed during the second half kickoff?

The penalty on the play was a facemask on Arizona. Since it was a live ball penalty on the offense (it occurred before change of possession), the Steelers would have only been able to accept the penalty and replay the down. Obviously, they wanted to keep the touchdown, so they declined it. Also, the only way a penalty would be "carried over" to the second half was if it was a dead-ball foul after the half had clearly ended. Any penalty during play would either be declined or extend the half.

• Reader Harris submitted this question: "I watched a game in which the Quarterback (Philip Rivers) had obviously crossed the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass. The play was challenged and reviewed, and allowed to stand because the quarterback's entire body had not crossed the line of scrimmage, just his feet and hands. What do the rules say about this?"

Here you go, Rule 8-1-2: (an illegal forward pass is) A forward pass thrown when the passer is beyond the line of scrimmage.

Note: It is a forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage if the passer's entire body and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is released, whether the passer is airborne or touching the ground. The penalty for a forward pass thrown from beyond the line is enforced from the spot where the ball is released.

That's all the time we have for this week. Continue keeping your eyes peeled during the playoffs and keep those submissions coming, as The Zebra Report will not be resting. It will be a bit easier for me to see every play now that there's only one game being played at a time. Thus, no more of my whining about not being able to find a specific play.

Got a rules-related question? Whether it's elementary, high school or NFL, email TZR and he'll see what he can do.
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