While the Competition Committee sought out to establish new ways to protect the league’s more costly investments, the new “wedge rule” seems to stick out like a sore thumb. While safety concerns were the primary reasons for rule amendments, the decision to alter how blocking is established on kick returns is most curious.
The Associated Press briefly defined the penalty as, “On kickoffs, no blocking wedge of more than two players will be allowed. A 15-yard penalty will go to a violating team.”
The 15-yard penalty is a very hefty of yardage to offer up in the case of an infraction. But the actual policy itself still seemed fairly vague.
FoxSports elaborated a bit further on what will now be considered illegal in the eyes of an official. “On kickoffs, after the ball is kicked, no more than two receiving team players may intentionally form a wedge in an attempt to block for the runner. An illegal wedge is defined as three or more players lined up shoulder-to-shoulder within two yards of each other.”
Apparently, setting up a wall of blockers for a return man is now a safety concern. But creating a penalty against it seems counter-productive to the safety precautions the Competiton Committee vowed to take.
How does removing blockers for a return man improve player safety?
Ask any quarterback or running back about the importance of their blockers. These men provide a barrier between would-be tacklers and the return man they’re obligated to protect.
They are the obstruction in what would be a clear path to an accelerating kick returner.
How are two isolated blockers expected to effectively protect against speeding men converging on their runner?
Last November, Leon Washington returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the New England Patriots. Immediately in front of him is a three-man wedge, shielding him from the incoming gunners responsible for preventing him from doing what he does best.
Removing one of those blockers stops that play from happening. How is this now illegal?
What’s so terribly wrong about that blocking scheme that makes it necessary for a penalty flag?
If only two men are blocking for Leon, a speeding gunner—sprinting down toward’s Washington’s right—would have had a clear shot to laying Washington out before he has a chance to cut left.
By the time Washington catches the ball, there is an entire coverage team running at full-speed looking for the best path to stop him. With the Competition Committee demanding only two players create a wedge, how is it safer to leave a man with less blockers?
With this new rule, not only is a return man more exposed to the coverage team, but the entire return game is going to be forced into the hands of an observing referee.
Expecting a referee to adequately determine two-yard distances when the ball is in play is absolutely absurd. Blockers have to move in accordance with the coverage team.
The Committee’s definition is too loose to overlook. What’s going to define an intentional wedge?
Why should a referee be given the judgment to determine sufficient space between blockers when their job is specifically designated to protect and provide opportunity for their return man?
In Westhoff, we trust. But the task before him is a daunting one.
Widely regarded as one of the best in the business, Westhoff is going to have his hands full formulating a new return scheme that’s effective, legal, and—most importantly—protects his return man.
This new rule is going to be the cause for a lot of aggravating flags. A 15-yard penalty is going to be absolutely deflating to a team trying to win the field position battle.
Imagine a return man jumps out for a healthy, 45-yard return, but one of the refs throws a flag because he believes a wedge was tighter than two yards apart?
What happens when a player more concerned with avoiding a 15-yard penalty flag leaves a lane wide-open for a clear shot at the man he’s supposed to block for?
Player safety is a priority, but this decision has the potential to become more of a liability than an actual precaution.