We reported Wednesday that the Redskins’ Niles Paul had been fined $20,000 for hitting Rams rookie punt returner Austin Pettis while he was fielding a punt (pictured). Paul isn’t the only Redskins player whose paycheck is going to be considerably lighter this week.
Perry Riley also drew a fine for hitting Pettis the first time that he foolishly refused to call for a fair catch on a Sav Rocca punt with huge hang time. Riley was fined “only” $15,000 because unlike Paul’s hit, the contact was not helmet-to-helmet.
A look at the play and at the rulebook make me wonder why Riley was penalized or fined at all. The contact with Pettis was not helmet-to-helmet; it was facemask to shoulder pad. The ball was in Pettis’ midsection when Riley arrived so he did have an opportunity to field the punt. Referee Walt Coleman said, “Personal foul, hit to a defenseless receiver” when he announced the penalty.
The thing that is hard to understand about the penalty and fine on Riley is that the contact he made was not prohibited by the rules. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 of the NFL rulebook deals with hits to defenseless players. A player attempting to field a kick or punt in the air is defined as a protected player. But once he touches the ball, which Pettis had, it becomes legal to hit him.
Receivers attempting to catch a pass are extended additional protection after they make the reception; they are protected until they have time to protect themselves. No such protection is specified for punt returners. Their protection is supposed to be the fair catch.
In any case, even if Pettis was considered to be defenseless the contact that Riley made was not prohibited by the rules. Here is the rule from the above-cited part of the rulebook:
(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.
Riley hit Pettis’ shoulder pad with his facemask. There was not contact with the head or neck area and Riley did not lower his head and make contact with the crown of his helmet.
It is well known that game officials are told to err on the side of throwing the flag when they are in doubt in these situations so I can understand the penalty. But it is difficult to justify the fine, which was levied after league officials examined the play in slow motion. I don’t know what rule was violated to justify the fine since by this rule a punt returner loses his protection as a defenseless player as soon as the ball is no longer in the air and that in any case Riley’s contact was not prohibited by the rules.