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When a runner’s helmet comes off, he’s down

David Reed, Trumaine Johnson

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver David Reed reaches into the end zone for an apparent touchdown after loosing his helmet under St. Louis Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson during the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. It was ruled a touchdown on the field but reversed on review. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


During Sunday’s loss to the Rams, Colts receiver David Reed caught a pass and had his helmet pulled off by Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan at the 3-yard line. Reed stayed up, lunged forward and stuck the ball over the goal line, and the official signaled touchdown.

But it wasn’t a touchdown.

As NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino explained in a video distributed to the media, as soon as a ball carrier’s helmet comes off, the play is over. The NFL doesn’t want anyone getting tackled while not wearing a helmet, and so the rule is that a ball carrier who doesn’t have a helmet on is down.

“The ruling on the field was a touchdown, and you see the receiver’s helmet comes off,” Blandino said. “When the runner’s helmet comes off -- only the runner -- once it separates completely from the head, the play is over. It’s dead. Player safety -- this rule was put in a couple years ago. It’s basically just like this runner being down.”

Blandino noted that the referee eventually looked at the replay and overruled the touchdown call in the Rams-Colts game, but he sounded disappointed that it had to be reviewed because the official on the field let it go.

“We let it go, came back in replay and reverse it, which was the right thing to do. We should have it correct on the field, though. The helmet is off, obviously it’s off. The official needs to see this,” Blandino said.

Replay review can be used to determine whether a helmet came off prior to a runner crossing the goal line, or whether a helmet came off prior to a player losing possession of the ball. The same rules that govern a player down by contact apply. But the ball carrier who loses his helmet is down, and the days of Jason Witten running down the field without his helmet are over.