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New rule on crack-back blocks adds defenders to 'defenseless' players

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Expanding the definition of defenseless player puts more of a strain on game officials. (Getty Images)  
Expanding the definition of defenseless player puts more of a strain on game officials. (Getty Images)  

The NFL owners meetings are over and there are new rules in the books, voted on by the 32 owners. Player safety is the one theme that will get new rules passed almost every time and that is for the most part a very good thing.

Under the umbrella of player safety is the "defenseless player" rule. In regard to a defenseless player, the NFL rulebook states:

"It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player in a defenseless position. For example, a player in a defenseless position can be a receiver in the act of catching a pass, a quarterback completing his throwing motion in the pocket, a punter completing a punt, or a kicker finishing a kick.

"The foul is forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; and lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead 'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body."

This week, the NFL expanded the concept of a defenseless player to include defenders. Now the crack-back block by an offensive player lined up more than 2 yards laterally outside the tackle can't crack back on a defenseless defender in the head or neck area as described above. The same goes for a blocker in the backfield at the snap of the ball who after the snap moves more than 2 yards laterally outside of a tackle.

There are two major areas where this opportunity will show up. The first is when a safety comes up in the box in run support and a wide receiver or flexed tight end is assigned to go inside and "dig out" the safety. The second situation is the recent growth in the use of a flexed tight end to come down and crack the defensive end so a run play can get outside.

Crack-back blocks are still legal, as long as the blocker hits the proper target area with the proper technique. The problem for the blocker assigned to crack back is the targeted defensive player is moving and the aiming point can change in a split second. The next thing is an unnecessary roughness call by the official.

This can become a problem for the fullback who is assigned to chip block a defensive end on his way out in a pass route. What happens if he widens his path and finds himself two yards outside a defensive end who is being blocked by a tackle and winds up hitting the end with a shoulder in the neck area because the defensive end dipped at the last second? Are the refs going to call that unnecessary roughness?

Boomer Esiason once told me Larry Centers was the best chip blocker he had ever seen, and I wonder if he would be as effective today as he was in his playing days. Larry was great at getting a good shot on the ribs of a pass rusher on his way out of the backfield. Could he take that violent shot today and risk the target area moving and consequently his forearm hit the neck?

One offensive-minded head coach sat down with me to discuss the issue and I asked him about motion landmarks and alignments. He said they have to look at this issue closely, and that his team may have to be much more exact about getting a blocker just inside the 2-yard landmark at the snap of the ball so they are not considered a flexed player, especially when they want to block down on a defensive end.

We continue to open up the can of worms about the defenseless player and whether he really is defenseless. I coached safeties at one time, and when a safety recognized a flexed tight end or a wide receiver in motion back toward the tackle he was always instructed to yell "Crack alert!" The corner was also instructed to do the same if the flex tight end or the in-motion wide receiver was in position to crack back on a safety.

If the blocker works inside to dig out the safety, many times the corner replaces him as the run support player and the safety takes the receiver. I never felt the safety was defenseless because he could see the blocker coming at him and there was no blindside block.

The same thing could be said for the defensive end that has a flexed player to his outside. The linebacker to his side should yell "crack alert."

I understand the reason for the rule, but I suspect it will be overemphasized this fall and probably lead to a few controversial calls.

Where does the defenseless player issue go from here? One member of the competition committee told me there was some sentiment in the room to look at running backs as players that could be called for unnecessary roughness for hitting a defenseless player.

Think it is too far-fetched to happen? Reread the language above in paragraph two and think about the violent 250-pound running back that quickly cuts back, lowers his head and attacks the head or neck area of a tackler.

Is that player eventually going to be considered defenseless?

Finally, I am all for player safety, but the challenge may be to keep the game of football as the violent contact sport we all love and not cross the line of totally changing the game while keeping it safe.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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