Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The NFL’s decision to suspend Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict five games for his illegal hit on Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman resulted from a new rule that will also be a point of emphasis for officials this year. (Let’s go ahead and informally name the rule after Burfict, in the grand tradition of eponymous NFL rules no one really understands.) It’s easy to see how the application of the rule has the potential to sow confusion throughout the upcoming season.

At 12.2.7(a)2, the rule book states the following (emphasis on what’s new):

It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture. Players in a defenseless posture are ... A receiver running a pass route when the defender approaches from the side or behind.

So: The rule book explicitly says defenders cannot hit defenseless pass catchers from the side or from behind, and that they cannot lead with the crowns of their helmets. This appears to constitute the basis of Burfict’s appeal, and of the Bengals’ stated support for his appeal:

“The Bengals are aware of the NFL’s letter to Vontaze regarding a play in last weekend’s game. The film shows that the hit was legal, that Vontaze engaged his opponent from the front, and that contact was shoulder-to-chest. The Club will support Vontaze in the appeal process.”

Now let’s look at two angles of Burfict’s hit on Sherman. The first one happens in the middle of the field, right at the 40-yard line. Sherman seems to run straight into Burfict:

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The second angle shows Burfict leading with his shoulder and appearing to hit Sherman in the chest. But Sherman’s head is turned back toward quarterback Alex Smith, rather than right at Burfict:

This is where the confusion starts to set in. Here is the league’s summary of the new rule on its operations website, which goes beyond what’s actually stated in the rule book (emphasis mine):

In the interest of protecting players from unnecessary risk, NFL owners voted to ... Give a receiver running a pass route defenseless player protection when a defender approaches from behind or the side. The change prohibits forcible contact to the head or neck area or with the crown of the helmet. Once the receiver becomes a blocker, or assumes a blocking posture, he no longer has defenseless player protection.

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The league has also prepared a video summary of its 2017 rules changes and points of emphasis. That video, which Deadspin has viewed, was to be shown to all players during training camp, according to the league. In it, new NFL vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron explains things this way (emphasis mine):

“Beginning in 2017, a receiver running a route will receive defenseless player protection when the defender approaches him from behind or the side. This protection prohibits forcible contact to the head or neck area, and forcible contact with the crown of the helmet to any part of the body.”

[...]

“If the receiver and the defender are squared up, or the contact is to the body without the crown of the helmet, it is legal. Once the receiver takes a blocking posture, he no longer receives defenseless player protection.”

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Also in that video, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent says, “These hits result in a suspension, even for a first offense.”

The video includes a glimpse of what constitutes a legal hit, according to the new rule:

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So: The spirit of the rule, outlined only in the points of emphasis, suggests that a defender is OK to hit a pass catcher if that pass catcher has “squared up” the defender, or as soon as a pass catcher has taken on “a blocking posture.” But in the split-second it may take for a defender to make a decision, what constitutes “squared up,” or even “a blocking posture”? The GIF above of the “legal action” from the league’s video is a clear example of Chargers tight end Hunter Henry running straight into Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey. But how close would Henry have had to be to be considered “squared up”? What might happen if a quarterback were to pump-fake, thus inducing a defender to charge toward a potential pass catcher? And, as a commenter noted just after this post was initially published, Sherman had initially stayed in to chip block before breaking into his route and getting blown up by Burfict. Which means Sherman should no longer have been considered a defenseless player, right?

Let’s muddle this a bit more. At rule 12.2.6(g), the rule book already defines unnecessary roughness—which calls for a 15-yard penalty—this way:

unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (1) is out of the play or (2) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead

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And the definition of prohibited contact against a defenseless player is spelled out in 12.2.7(b) (emphasis mine):

  1. forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him
  2. lowering the head and making forcible contact with the crown or ”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body
  3. illegally launching into a defenseless opponent. It is an illegal launch if a player (i) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, and (ii) uses any part of his helmet to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body. (This does not apply to contact against a runner, unless the runner is still considered to be a defenseless player, as defined in Article 7.)

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Are your eyes glazing over yet? Imagine how it’ll be for the NFL’s officials. How is the Burfict Rule supposed to be enforced when it partially overlaps with other existing rules, and its own wording is open to interpretation? Like the catch rule and last year’s celebration rule, the NFL has again legislated something into incoherence.

With all that in mind, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport explained why Burfict drew a suspension:

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One final point: At the time of his infraction, Burfict’s actions did not draw a penalty flag.