Referee Walt Coleman worked the infamous Patriots-Raiders playoff game that introduced the world to the tuck rule. Today, in the Washington Redskins-Carolina Panthers game, Coleman and his crew correctly interpreted another rule that was equally confusing to those watching and, arguably, just as ridiculous.
With the Redskins holding a 17-12 lead early in the fourth quarter, the team was set to return a punt after forcing a three-and-out from the Panthers. Antwaan Randle El(notes) signaled for a fair catch but was run into by teammate Byron Westbrook(notes) who, while preparing to block, was pushed into Randle El by Panthers safety Quinton Teal(notes). The ball dropped into the resulting scrum, hit Westbrook in the foot and was eventually recovered by Carolina.
Officials discussed the play and initially awarded the Redskins possession before reversing course and giving the ball to the Panthers.
It seemed like a ridiculous call. How could it be legal to intentionally shove a player into another player who had called for a fair catch? Doesn't that violate the spirit of the fair catch?
Apparently not. Coleman explained the ruling after the game (quotes courtesy @RickMaese)
"What happened was, the two guys were blocking each other. The Washington guy got blocked into his own man, so there was no interference. All we had to figure out who touched it first. If the Wash player is stationary and just standing there and not trying to block, then he can't do that. If they are both trying to block, then he can knock him into him. Because they were both engaged, then that's why there wasn't a foul or anything wrong with that play. If the Wash player is stationary and just standing there and the Carolina player had come down there and knocked him, then it would have been totally different."
So if a guy is just sitting around, it's illegal for a defender to shove him into a guy calling a fair catch. But if they're in a tussle, it's allowed.
The players on the Redskins said they were aware of the rule and that they practice blocking players into fair catchers during practice. I've never seen that actually happen in a game though.
I'm a Redskins fan, albeit a completely jaded one, so I'm not the most arbitrary person to be discussing this. It's like asking Charles Woodson(notes) what he thinks about the tuck rule. But I'm not sure what the difference is between getting shoved and getting blocked. Why the subtle difference? As MJD Tweeted after the play, why not just run downfield grabbing a guy by the shoulder pads and throw him into the punt returner every time?
Jim Zorn was confused too. For some reason he challenged the play even though it was clear that the ball hit Westbrook first. Once the ruling was explained there's nothing to challenge, except, perhaps, the absurdity of yet another NFL rule.