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NFL attempts to clarify the defenseless player rules

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 13: Marques Colston #12 of the New Orleans Saints pulls down a first down catch against Curtis Lofton #50 of the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on November 13, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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After a personal foul penalty on Monday night led to a high-profile media tiff, the NFL has stepped in to attempt to clarify what, exactly, the term “defenseless player” means.

The personal foul was called on Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton, and it left ESPN commentator Jon Gruden harshly criticizing the officiating crew, asking what Lofton was supposed to do to play defense while avoiding contact with a defenseless receiver. Gruden’s criticism had former NFL head of officiating and current FOX analyst Mike Pereira steamed.

“Nobody likes the rule but that was helmet to helmet contact and the NFL wants that called regardless of what Gruden says,” Pereira wrote in a series of Twitter messages ripping Gruden. “People ask me what was he supposed to do. He was supposed to hit him with his shoulder in the chest area or below. Most are doing that. He announced hitting a defenseless player. He was defenseless and u can hit him in the head or neck area with your helmet, shoulder, forearm.”

Today the NFL’s communications department attempted to clear things up, with e-mails to the media and Twitter messages pointing to the exact wording of the rules regarding defenseless players.

The relevant portion of the rule is:

“It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
(a) Players in a defenseless posture are: [. . .]
(2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player;
[. . .]
(b) Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:
(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; and
(2) 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.”

Hits on defenseless players have become like Rorschach tests: The way observers react to them tells you more about the observers than it does about the hits. But if we’re going to react to the hits at all, we should at least know what the rules say. It’s smart for the NFL to continue to make the rules widely available, even though we all know this wasn’t the last time two observers of the same hit will sharply disagree about whether it should have been a penalty.