Monday, October 21, 2013

The Pushing Rule

On Sunday Patriots rookie defensive lineman Chris Jones made history by being the first NFL player to be penalized for pushing his own teammate into other people. NFL Rule 913 (2b) was adopted before the season, but had not been enforced by the League's officials. Although it had been violated. So much so that the League emphasized enforcing the rule in a weekly training video distributed to officials. This video included footage of the rule being broken this season, and no penalty flags being thrown.

So a rule that hadn't been enforced for 6 weeks and 93 games finally got called in overtime on a potential game-winning 56-yard field-goal attempt. The resulting 15-yard penalty moved the Jets from hopeful field-goal range, to probable field-goal range.

We should remember that even if there hadn't been a penalty, the Patriots were not assured of victory. Their offense struggled all day. Who knows what would have happened.

And I do appreciate the intention of the rule. If two behemoth linemen are engaged at the line of scrimmage, using every ounce of strength against the other, then a third person uses their strength and weight to help push their teammate forward, it could become unsafe. And such plays have ended in injury.

Then again, how many plays in football are unsafe? Should we ban receivers from crossing the middle of the defense, or outlaw quarterbacks scrambling, or try to eliminate blocking from the game entirely? Safe football is an oxymoron.

And why is the penalty so harsh? You lose 15 yards because you push your teammate into the pile? So this penalty has the same consequence as decking a defenseless receiver or bodyslamming a quarterback to the ground. Does that make sense?

Well, rules are rules, right.

Except that for 6 weeks this rule wasn't enforced. Then the League decided to enforce it. So the officials knew about this change. Did the teams know that the League had instructed its officials to look for this violation? Because if you fail to enforce a rule for 6 weeks and 90+ games, then decide to enforce it to the letter without any notice, that seems a bit odd. And if the motivation behind the rule is player safety, wouldn't you want to tell the teams that it will be enforced, so that they might emphasize to their players that it might be enforced, so then it ideally won't need to be called? If something is illegal because it is dangerous, isn't it better to prevent it from happening at all than to catch someone in the act?

Maybe the NFL does inform teams of such things. And if they do, then the onus is on the coaching staff to pass that information along to the players.

Although I'm not so sure the NFL does a good job of explaining these rules to teams. In September there was an online article that discussed this rule, and stated that players from the "second level" could not push their teammates who had been on the line of scrimmage. That was how the NFL explained the enforcement of the rule.

This article was altered Sunday evening, not long after Bill Belichick's press conference. It now reads that pushing of any kind is illegal.

For the record, the NFL rule book stipulates that pushing teammates into the pile on a field-goal or PAT is illegal, and doesn't specify which players pushing which other players is illegal. So the rule was properly enforced Sunday, it just wasn't explained very well in September.

The NFL tried to clarify the rule, yet their explanation only muddled things.

Some might think this is justice for those evil Patriots to finally be punished for their history of rule violations and also karmic retribution for the Pats benefiting from things like the Tuck Rule. Some might find it fitting that the team that brought us SpyGate was undermined by a video, this time an NFL officials' training video.

All I see is a defensive linemen doing what he's been doing all season long, then getting penalized for it. I see two sets of large men pushing into each other. One of those men, Jones, barely pushes his teammate forward while he's trying to move forward himself. Then I see a referee throwing a flag, and a ball moved 15 yards forward, and a game being won because the League decided that Week 7 was the time to take a stand on the relatively innocuous thing that Jones was doing.

There's no grand conspiracy. It's just stupid. And silly. Rules are rules, but enforce them from Week 1 if they're in the book. And don't explain the rules one way, enforce them another, and then go back and change the explanation to suit the enforcement. That's ridiculously sketchy. Thankfully, Tom E. Curran noticed the modification.

The Patriots had ample opportunity to win that game before the penalty. And the responsibility for the loss is solely on them. However, the absurdity of the situation should not be ignored. It's ridiculous that a 15-yard penalty resulted from a harmless play that looked like a million other plays. Meanwhile 4 quarterbacks left games with injuries this week. Good job protecting players, NFL.

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