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How many times have you seen it? A punter gets the ball away just before the approaching rush arrives. The punter falls to the ground. Was there contact? Did the punter flop? Should it be a 5-yard penalty? Oh wait, that doesn't exist anymore. Was it bad enough to be a 15-yarder?
This conversation plays out weekly, even among the most knowledgeable NFL observers, confused by years of rule changes and tweaks and aggravated by the potential swing of returning possession to a punting team. We saw a confluence of these factors Thursday night in Oakland, making this a good time to dig deeper into the penalties for roughing or running into a kicker.
The portion of the NFL rulebook devoted to those two penalties is excerpted in the chart (right). Contrary to popular belief, there is still a 5-yard penalty for running into the kicker. It does not carry an automatic first down. Roughing the kicker, a 15-yard penalty, does bring an automatic first down, if for some reason there were more than 15 yards left to gain.
These rules are complicated and, as you'll notice, there are more exceptions to the rules listed than actual instances. Generally speaking, it's roughing if the punter's plant leg is contacted or if he collides with a rusher when both feet are on the ground. It's running into the kicker when the kicking leg is contacted, or if the rusher slides underneath the punter and "prevents him from returning both feet to the ground."
Given the number of exceptions, these penalties are rarely called. In fact, entering Thursday night's game, NFL referees had made only four calls for roughing the kicker and six more for running into one. Referee Ed Hochuli's crew had called a total of four; no other crew had called more than one; and 10 hadn't called any.
Fast-forward to the second quarter of Thursday night's game. We saw Oakland Raiders special-teams player Ray-Ray Armstrong dive in an attempt to block Dustin Colquitt's punt for the Kansas City Chiefs. Colquitt got the punt off cleanly but then fell as Armstrong slid beneath him.
Replays showed that Armstrong made only mild contact, at best, with Colquitt. So what's your call?
If you said, "running into the kicker," you're right.
The Raiders sideline erupted when referee John Parry made the call, presumably noting the lack of contact between Armstrong and Colquitt. But the play was a textbook demonstration of the second definition for running into the kicker. Armstrong slid underneath Colquitt, preventing him from landing both feet cleanly on the ground. Parry made the right call based on the wording of the rulebook.
The general intent of these rules is to protect punters from injury when they're in a vulnerable position. Over the years, the league has tried to account for unavoidable and/or mild contact, leading to the 500-odd words in the rulebook devoted to adjudicating a collision between a rusher and a kicker. So it goes.
Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active, but his average has dropped in recent weeks and now stands at 19.6.
Overall in the NFL, penalties in the past three weeks have dropped significantly. The average number of penalties per week through Week 8 was 251.8. In Weeks 9-11, the totals have twice been 190 and once 189.