Among the many memorable things the late Vince Lombardi once said, there was this: “Football is not a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”
I can’t help wondering what the great coach would think about the game he loved so much if he were alive today. When he was coaching those great Green Bay teams in the 1960s, players were praised and rewarded for bone-jarring tackles. Today they are penalized and in some cases ejected from the game and fined.
In its ever-increasing attempts to protect “defenseless” players, the NFL has mandated its officials to enforce strictly the rules against helmet-to-helmet hits and tackles that involve hitting an opposing player in the head, neck, and chin area with the helmet. Now before I continue, let me make it clear that I don’t want to see anyone hurt during a football game, nor am I condoning what can be classified as a “dirty” hit. But it seems to me that many times these days, players are penalized for just plain, old-fashioned hard hitting.
Here’s something for your consideration. In November of 1960 the Philadelphia Eagles were playing the New York Giants. Frank Gifford caught a short pass and turned up the field only to be leveled by crushing tackle delivered by Chuck Bednarik. Here’s a clip of the play.
Notice two things in addition to the severity of the hit. First, Gifford did not move because he was knocked out cold. Secondly, there was no flag on the play. The concussion Gifford sustained that day was so serious that he didn’t return to the football field until 1962.
Now the play that precipitated the piece you are reading occurred on the night of December 15, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the Cincinnati Bengals. Kevin Huber, the Bengals’ punter, kicked to ball to the Steelers’ 33-yardline, where Antonio Brown fielded it and headed toward the Cincinnati end zone en route to a 67-yard touchdown run. During the action, Huber appeared to be moving into position to attempt a tackle on Brown when he was leveled by the Steelers’ rookie linebacker Terence Garvin. No flag was thrown, but Huber suffered a broken jaw and a fractured vertebra ending his season. Below are three different views of the play.
Although no penalty was assessed, Garvin was subsequently fined $25,000 for what the league deemed an illegal hit. After viewing the play a number of times, I am still undecided about the hit’s legality, but I am convinced it was neither malicious nor intentionally dirty. It was just one football player trying to block another football player. But wait! According to the rules, a punter or a kicker is not really a football player. Yes, you read that correctly, and that’s what disturbs me.
In discussing the play on the NFL Network, Dean Blandino, vice president of officiating, explained the justification for Garvin’s stiff fine by saying, “Huber, he’s a punter. And the key is he’s defenseless throughout the down. So even though he’s pursuing the play, he still gets defenseless-player protection. You can’t hit him in the head or neck, and you can’t use the crown or forehead parts of the helmet to the body.”
And the NFL rule 12-2-7(a)(6) specifically supports Blandino by stating, “However, a kicker/punter is a defenseless player through the conclusion of the down.”
All right, before we attempt to reach any kind of a conclusion for all of this, let’s see what the two players involved had to say. Garvin, who probably will appeal the fine, said he was just trying to make a play.
“I fell down on the play, and I got up and saw A.B. coming towards me, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to try and help him break on this play.’ I wasn’t out there trying to be vicious. When you’re in the game, you’re really just trying to make a play and help your team out.”
Garvin is a football player, and as such he is trained and coached to act instinctively during the heat of battle, but when you consider the rule about kickers and punters, his thought process should have gone thusly: “OK, here comes A.B., and he has a chance to score. Uh, oh, here’s a guy moving in to make the tackle. I’m going take him out. Aw shit! He’s the kicker. He’s defenseless. I can’t touch him, and so I’ll just jump out of the way. Sorry, A.B. You would have scored if you hadn’t been tackled by a defenseless player.”
So what did Huber have to say about the whole thing?
“There really is not much I can do about it now. Me just getting mad and stressing about it is only going to make it harder to get through. It is what it is. It’s part of the game, I know — big hits. Unfortunately I got one of the big hits, and I’ve got to deal with it. I’ll be fine. I’ll be back next year.”
Well, apparently whether he’s defenseless or not, he realizes what others don’t. Big hits are part of football.
What does all of this mean? I guess we can draw several conclusions here. One is that punters and kickers enjoy protection on the field unlike that of any other player because from the time they run out of the tunnel onto the field, they are defenseless. Actually, they don’t need to wear a helmet and pads. Shorts and a T-shirt should suffice.
Here’s a suggestion for a rule change to clear up the whole thing. In baseball we have a designated hitter, and so why can’t we have a designated punter/kicker substitute in football? Thus whenever a team lines up to kick off or punt, it will have 12 men on the field because standing next to the punter or kicker, who will be dressed in his shorts, will be a real football player. Once the ball is kicked, the kicker sprints to the sidelines to a little area marked “Defenseless Players Only.” And play continues.
Of course the next dilemma is how to protect the kickers during field goals and extra points. Perhaps they could be surrounded by a metal cage like the ones used by divers who study sharks. Of course the cage would have to be much, much larger so that the kicker take the necessary steps and have room to swing his leg to launch the ball through a small opening in the cage, and a soon as the ball is away, a steel door will fall into place protecting the defenseless kicker from any possible injury.
Finally, I think there is only one logical conclusion to be drawn here. Based upon the stated rules and the way the league views them, kickers and punters aren’t really football players. Instead they are people skilled in kicking a leather-covered rubber bladder long and high distances. And certainly there’s no shame in this because what kickers ad punters do often has a direct impact on the final outcome of a game.
But as the incomparable late Howard Cosell used to say, “Let’s just tell it like it is.” Simply stated then, any argument that a kicker or punter is a football player in the truest sense of the word is totally defenseless.