A defense of NFL refs

Colts receiver Austin Collins had to be carted off the field after a hit from Eagles safety Kurt Coleman. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

It is a lonely burden, but it is the life I have chosen.

I am here to defend NFL officials.

Whether or not you like the way the hit on Indianapolis' Austin Collie was officiated on Sunday -- and I happen to think Collie was not defenseless when he was pinballed and concussed by Quintin Mikell and then Kurt Coleman -- everybody needs to stop yelling and complaining and talking about flag football and players wearing dresses. This new rule isn't that bad, and the referees are just doing what their bosses want and what the rulebook says they should do.

Read the book sometimes. Read Page 83, which contains the end of the section on unnecessary roughness. Read the final line of that section, which is included in italics:

Note: If in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official(s) should always call unnecessary roughness.

That line is right there in the book. That line is why the flag was thrown on Sunday. And in a sport where everybody in their heart is really worried that somebody is going to get killed if they don't find a way to tone it down, how can that be wrong?

Now, to the specific rule. You've never been allowed to use your helmet as a weapon. As the book states, it is unnecessary roughness:

If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures...

What that paragraph means is that, unless you are doing some really egregious head-hunting -- and we all know what that looks like, and anybody who doesn't want to take that out of the game is an imbecile -- they're really not going to call it in the overwhelming majority of situations. A running back or a receiver streaking down the field with the ball gets no protection. As long as you're not a total idiot about it, you can pretty much hit him with anything and get away with it.

The only people who get protection are quarterbacks who are throwing or just released the ball, a player already on the ground at the end of the play, a player fielding a kick or punt in the air, a running back who has already been stopped and is essentially being held up by a defender as a target/pinata, and a defenseless receiver.

The only thing new is the defintion of a defenseless receiver. Yes, it is a little bit tricky -- but we're talking about a pretty small percentage of plays in a game where it is an issue. This is not the wussification of football. It is a couple of plays a game. And here is what you can't do to a defenseless receiver: you can't launch into him and hit him in the head or neck with any part of your body, even if you start by hitting him in the chest or shouder and then the helmet slides up; you can't make head-to-head contact; and you can't lower your head and hit him anywhere on his body with your helmet.

Even if he is defenseless -- which means he hasn't yet had the opportunity to protect himself, which can be a close call (see: Collie) -- you can hit him with your shoulder on his torso. You can tackle him with your arms. You do not, as some people have suggested, have to stand there and watch him run away from you before you can hit him. That isn't the rule and that isn't how the rule is being called.

You just can't hit him with your helmet when the player is defenseless. And you can't launch and hit him in the head with any part of your body.

Again, it is a small percentage of plays. This isn't about a running back lowering his shoulder and, because of that lowering, finding himself getting hit in the head by a tackler. That running back has no protection except in the most egregious circumstances. This isn't about incidental clashing of heads, which is permitted during a legal tackle. This is simply about the need for defensive players to aim a little bit lower on defenseless receivers, and lead with their shoulders and not their heads.

Again, I don't think Collie was defenseless after seeing the replay a couple of times -- but it was close, and he did end up getting hit in the head by Coleman, and both the emphasis of the league office and the rulebook are clear: if in doubt, throw the flag.

What is the alternative? What until the concussion data becomes so overwhelming that Congress steps in? Wait until somebody dies, God forbid?

The game needs to head in this direction. So don't blame the officials -- they are merely the instruments of a policy that absolutely needs to be implemented, however imperfectly. Because the alternative is no longer acceptable.