High Hits - The Rules

Earlier this month I did an article covering low blocks and the rules relating to them, this time I’m going to the top.

In any discussion about high hits in football we need to add context. Why have the rules changed in this area and how are they being administered?

Unlike in normal society, the big unspoken word in football beginning with C is not cancer but concussion.  Last year, the NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety, acknowledged during congressional testimony that there is a connection between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Just before Christmas the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for a settlement between the NFL and former players that could cost the NFL up to $1 billion over 65 years.

This week the NFL appointed a new role of Chief Medical Officer.  It should come as no surprise that Dr. Sills joins the NFL from Vanderbilt University Medical Center where he serves as Professor of Neurological Surgery, Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation. He is also Founder and Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center.

In addition to concussion, hits to and with the helmet escalate other possible injury risks, including those to the spinal cord.  As a result, there is a concerted drive to remove the head from football.

The penalising of hits with the head isn’t new, the penalty of spearing (using the helmet to attack an opponent) was introduced in 1976.  As a result of this change, the incidence of spinal injuries dropped significantly.  For example, quadriplegia decreased from 10.66 per 100,000 participants in college football in 1976, to 2.66 per 100,000 in 1977.  For more background on the risks, and the reasons your coach tells you to “keep your head up” take a look at this youtube video.

The continued push for safer football brought about the automatic ejection for Targeting in 2013 and there have been tweaks and extensions to this rule each year since.

What is Targeting

A common misconception with targeting is that it’s always head to head contact. It isn’t true.

There are two categories of Targeting, the first of which only needs to involve one head and that is the offenders. This penalty is for “Making Forcible Contact with the Crown of the Helmet“.  The definition for crown of the helmet has been expanded this year so it’s now an area starting at the top of the face cage.

A hit with the crown to any part of an opponents’ body is a foul with a 15 yard penalty and an automatic disqualification.  This is a relative of the old spearing rule.

The second Targeting foul is the one most often called these days and that is the hit to the head and neck area of a ‘DEFENSELESS’ opponent.  The hit DOES NOT need to be with the defender’s helmet, it can be with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.

Now the important word in the above sentence is defenseless.

What is a Defenseless Player?

Examples of defenseless players include but are not limited to:

  1. A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
  2. A receiver attempting to catch a forward pass or in position to receive a backwards pass or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
  3. A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return.
  4. A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
  5. A player on the ground.
  6. A player obviously out of the play.
  7. A player who receives a blind-side block. A blind-side block is one where a player obviously does not see the opposing blocker approaching him.
  8. A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.
  9. A quarterback any time after a change of possession.
  10. A ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first.

This list is, as it says examples.  In principle, any player who can not or does not see the hit coming can be considered defenseless, for example, the NFL  this week added to their list “a receiver running a pass route”.

Targeting Indicators

In addition to the physical contact there is also a need to have a targeting indicator.

Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to:

  1. Launch — a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area.
  2. A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground.
  3. Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area.
  4. Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet.

Let’s take a look at some plays that were ruled targeting that fall into a variety of these categories.

Example Targeting

In this example, the punt returner’s focus is on the ball and as a result he is defenseless by definition.  In addition unlike in the NFL his knee is down and as a result the play is over. The player also called for a fair catch and as a result the play was dead when he caught it, therefore, this player actually falls into multiple categories.

One of the new extensions to last year’s rule book was the inclusion of blind-side blocks.  Here the chasing defender is unable to protect himself from the block and gets defenseless protection as a result.  A common misconception is that all blindside blocks are illegal.  This isn’t the case.  It is only illegal if there is forcible contact to the head and neck area.

The judgement of officials who are having to throw flags for Targeting needs not only to establish what type of contact, crown of the helmet, or head and neck area but also to determine if the contact is forcible.  At full game speed this isn’t always easy to determine, nor even in video replay as the quality of UK video is rarely of the standard seen over in the US and we certainly won’t normally have multiple angles on the play.

Be careful though when you tread that edge and think you can throw the block and be ‘close’ to targeting.  The philosophy officials are taught with player safety issues is “When in Doubt” it IS targeting.  As you will have seen from the NFL situation and the video on spine injury this is a sensible side of the line to fall.

As can be seen from the above video, what may not look so bad from one angle can look very different from another. Just because you didn’t see it as Targeting doesn’t mean it wasn’t.

Here we see an example of a defenseless player that would not have had such high protection in 2016.  In Europe for 2017 we added “a ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first”.

This is perhaps your ‘typical’ targeting foul and the one you see most often when watching football either in the states or in the UK.  Until a receiver has become a runner, they retain their protection, so it’s not just a case of them getting fingers on a ball and they becoming ‘fair game’.

The final area for high hits that are illegal are those most often seen in line play.  These are where it is illegal to strike an opponent’s helmet (including the face mask), neck, face or any other part of the body with an extended forearm, elbow, locked hands, palm, fist, or the heel, back or side of the open hand.  Whilst these are also 15 yard penalties they don’t carry an automatic disqualification.

People sometimes complain about the new protection offered for defenseless players and yearn for the old days of hard-hitting football.  They say that the introduction of the Targeting rule has removed the ability to hit hard.  This frankly isn’t true.  What has happened by good coaching and players respecting the rules is that players are hitting just as hard, however they’ve lowered the target zone to the torso of the player.

Here’s a great example of a hard, yet fair football play by the defender.

Main photo: (c) David Robertson