Rules changes focus on safety

By Ron Brocato, Sports

As a wide receiver races downfield in hopes of catching a long pass for a touchdown, a trailing defender places both hands before the would-be receivers’ eyes, obstructing his view of the descending ball. The pass falls incomplete.

In another scenario, a player returning a punt streaks toward an anticipated wall of blockers, but the kicking team has clearly disrupted that wall from forming. The player with the ball sees this and reverses his field, which gives him the opportunity to run through a broken field.

When he makes that move, he puts himself in the cross hairs of a tackler. Without realizing it, the would-be stopper is upended by a blocker from his blind side and is taken out of the play. The player with the ball runs uncontested to the end zone.

In the past, example 1 would have been defined as “face-guarding,” an illegal defensive tactic, which would have resulted in a 15-yard penalty for pass interference.

Example 2 would had been a legal block providing the blocker had his head and shoulders on the side or in front of the opposing player.

Not anymore, mis amigos.

Under the revised rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, to which the Louisiana High School  Athletic Association subscribes, face guarding is now a legal maneuver providing the defender does not touch the intended receiver. And that “crack-back” block is a personal foul if delivered

by a shoulder or head. It must be made by the push of the hands.

It’s all about the safety of the players, as are many of the revised rules in this day of injury prevention.

Primarily concerned about the potential of concussions, although not limited to head vs. head contact, the federation is wary of what can happen when players who may weigh upwards of 300 pounds make contact with each other.

Putting safety first

A relatively new designation that has percolated through high school play is “defenseless player.”

The 2017 federation rule book defines the term as a player who, because of his physical position and focus of concentration, is especially vulnerable to injury. In such a case, a player who initiates contact against a defenseless player must make legal contact. Thus, the reason for the new, open-hand, push-off blocking technique.

You may not agree with this interpretation because you rarely see it in a college and pro game, but the federation states two examples of what is now considered a defenseless player in high school football: A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass, or a receiver attempting to catch a pass who has not had time to clearly become a runner.

In addition to these definitions, the updated rules state that if the forward progress of a player in possession of the ball is stopped, he is considered to be defenseless and cannot be hit by another opposing player. However, if the defender’s momentum takes him into the player with the ball while he is trying to avoid contact, the nearest official has the discretion to not penalize that player.

These new rules are open to an official’s subjectivity. No two officials may have the same interpretation. They are keenly aware of this. But when in doubt, the rule book clearly states, they should consider the player “defenseless.”

Another situation that makes a player vulnerable to injury is the onside kick in which players from the kicking team crash their bodies into opposing players in an effort to recover the loose ball. This is especially significant when a kicker is proficient at making the ball “pop up” off the tee.

The pop-up is a free kick in which the kicker drives the ball immediately into the ground. The ball strikes the ground once and pops into the air. The pop-up trajectory gives players on both teams the time to run under and leap for the loose ball if it has traveled at least 10 yards. The pop-up kick was an art form that was fun to watch, but for now, it’s a dinosaur.

Yes, such a free kick is not free at all. It will be considered encroachment and will cost the kicking team five yards.

The new national federation rule book is 96 pages of rules and interpretations football officials must know when they step onto a field.

One rule that didn’t make the book changes the definition of intentional grounding of the ball by the passer. It’s a new, experimental rule Louisiana is using with permission of the federation that allows the first player to touch the ball  following a snap from scrimmage (usually the quarterback) to legally ground the ball.

LHSAA assistant executive director Keith Alexander explained the circumstances at several rules meetings he held throughout the state last week for officials and coaches:

“If the player who first touches the ball runs out of or is flushed out of the pocket, it will be legal for him to avoid a loss of yardage by throwing the ball away if the ball crosses or lands beyond the neutral zone.”

Alexander defined the “pocket” as the zone between the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles. He specifically noted that, “Once the passer leaves the pocket, there is no longer a pocket. It disintegrates. So if he leaves the pocket then runs back to his original spot before throwing the ball away (beyond the neutral zone) consider him outside the pocket.”

Alexander told the officials  not to be too technical about making calls that protect a player.

“If there is a question if the passer is inside or outside the tackles when he throws the ball away, consider him outside. If there is a question whether the ball crossed the neutral zone, consider it has crossed the neutral zone.”

The neutral zone is the space between the offensive and defensive lines from where the ball is snapped.

He stressed to the referees (the crew chiefs who wear white caps) that it was important for them to explain this experimental rule to coaches of teams visiting from other states in their pre-game meetings.

And speaking of neutral zones, another new rule makes it illegal for a defensive player lining up across from the center to strike the ball or the snapper’s hand or arm prior to the snapper releasing the ball.

Although I suppose this became a written rule because the situation exists, but I’ve honestly never seen this kind of encroachment.

As the new rules indicate, protecting a player from harm is the new theme of high school football. And Alexander pointed out that a player who gives himself up by sliding feet first or a player not directly involved in a play is considered a defenseless player and the responsibility of the defense is to treat him as such.

It will be the responsibility of the wing officials to watch where the ball-carrier begins his slide. That is where the official should mark him down; not where the slide ends.

For those aficionados who don’t like the integrated gray color scheme that began with college football uniforms a few years ago and seems to have filtered down to the high schools, you will see a permanent change – if you can wait to 2021.

At that time, the jersey of the home team must be a dark color that clearly contrasts to white.  The number must also contrast with the color of the jersey.

As an example, Carver’s school colors are green and orange. The number on the green or orange jersey will have to be either white or have a white border so that it stands out.

And, as for you, Country Day, the gray jerseys with blue numbers will have to go.

So, with due respect to Nike chairman emeritus Phil Knight, the sartorial nightmare you started at your alma mater, the University of Oregon with the endless uniform designs, will end right there in four years.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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