RENTON, Wash. -- When NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino insisted that the hit Pittsburgh Steelers reserve linebacker Terence Garvin put on Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber last Sunday night was illegal because punters are defenseless throughout the down, there was a great hue and cry from football traditionalists everywhere. And the "Punters are People, Too" lobby took a very big hit. Garvin was fined $25,000 for a play that should have been flagged, and that flag would have negated Antonio Brown's 67-yard punt return touchdown. That missed flag from Ed Hochuli's crew would seem like a big deal in a game that ended in a 30-20 score in Pittsburgh's favor, but the primary takeaway most people had was that the NFL has once again gone too far in its protection of people playing a violent game by default.
“Huber, he’s a punter. And the key is he’s defenseless throughout the down,” Blandino told the NFL Network. “So even though he’s pursuing the play, he still gets defenseless-player protection. You can’t hit him in the head or neck, and you can’t use the crown or forehead parts of the helmet to the body.”
Former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic, now of ESPN's "Mike and Mike" radio show, spoke for many in a fairly epic rant on the subject.
"Every football player or every person who puts pads on should be embarrassed for this quote," Golic said Wednesday morning, via the Huffington Post. "We've seen punters make tackles before, have we not? They'll push someone out of bounds, they'll throw their body and probably scream like a woman when they do it...I'm just kidding."
Mike Greenberg, Golic's co-host, then suggested that Huber and all other punters should have special protection, because they're not really football players.
And that, friends, is where the NFL's fraternity of punters will step up and contradict what they feel has been an unfair bias. I spoke with Seattle punter Jon Ryan about this subject on Wednesday, and Ryan insisted that he's never felt defenseless in his life when he takes the field. This was especially true when he sort of tackled Chicago Bears return ace Devin Hester in the divisional round of the 2010 playoffs. Ryan is one of the league's best punters on one of the league's best teams -- and in his mind, that gives him some leeway to claim that he's a football player as well.
SI.com: Now, before Dean Blandino said that punters were defenseless through the down, were you even aware of that rule?
Jon Ryan: No, I didn't know. But I think that during the play ... they used to say that once you crossed the line of scrimmage, you were like every other player. I don't know if they still do that or not. But once you go down there and kind of get in on the tackle, I think you're fair game. The hit you saw in Cincinnati -- I mean, there's no room for that. That wasn't clean, in my opinion. That was a terrible thing that happened.
(GIF courtesy The Big Lead)
SI: Right. It seemed like the hit should have been more of the problem.
JR: Yeah, that's what I would think. It's just the way in which he hit him -- that was not something I think should be part of the game. But when I go in and try to make a tackle, I think I'm fair game -- I'm part of the play. You just hate to see something like that happen to the guy in Cincinnati. It's pretty rough.
SI: What's the best tackle you've made in the NFL?
JR: Uh, I honestly don't think I've made a good tackle. I don't think anyone would ... it wasn't teaching material. But I tackled Devin Hester about four years ago, and that was a diving shoelace tackle. It wasn't pretty by any means, but he ended up on the ground.
SI: Well, most guys can't even get a shoelace on him.
JR: Yeah, I'll take it.
SI: Do your coaches ever ask you to work on tackling, or is that something that just happens?
JR: It's just something that happens, you know? More bad things can happen ... the risk ... what am I trying to say here? More bad things can happen when you try to tackle. You just do it, and you can get hurt.
SI: It's like the old Darrel Royal adage: three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad. It seems like five things can happen when a punter tries to tackle, and at least five of them are bad.
JR: Well, you try and practice, but yeah. That is like punters tackling. It never ends well. That's why you try to work on just forcing the returner back into the field, because that's where your help is. By the time the returner gets through the punter, it's you against one of the best athletes in the world, and there's just 53 yards of space, sideline-to-sideline. Usually, as a punter to that point, you're just trying to force the guy back on the field.
SI: It almost seems that the "defenseless throughout the down" thing is an insult to your position. As if the NFL doesn't think you guys are real football players. I mean, you guys have allowed just 19 punt return yards all season! You have to have something to do with that.
JR: Yeah! Honestly, I wasn't even aware of that rule. I always kind of thought that once you got down there [on a return], you were fair game.
SI: So, you'd be less inclined to try and use that rule to your advantage in the future -- simply as a matter of pride?
JR: Well, I don't think you should just punt the ball and walk off the field. You're still a football player. I'm not trying to say that it was a clean hit by any means, but once a punter goes down there, he's fair game.