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Is a punter defenseless?
That's the debate all over the football world in the wake of the brutal, neck-breaking hit by the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terence Garvin on Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber on Sunday. Huber left the field bleeding from the mouth, and then learned he had a broken jaw and a fractured vertebra. The punter showed up at his locker Wednesday in a neck brace as word came down from the NFL that Garvin had been fined $25,000.
The Steelers' linebacker was not flagged for the hit, in which he appeared to launch himself into the neck area of Huber as the punter moved toward the end-zone bound Antonio Brown.
But the NFL investigated, and Dean Blandino, vice president of officials, said the hit was illegal because the punter is "defenseless throughout the down" according to Rule 12-2-7(a)(6).
"Even though he's pursuing the play," Blandino explained, "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."
The goal of the rule is noble, in that punters are smaller than pretty much all other football players. But it's hard for some to rationalize how a player who can make a tackle on a return is "defenseless."
Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee was certainly not defenseless when he clocked Denver Broncos returner Trindon Holliday in Week 7 as he ran up the sideline on a kickoff return. The debate following that colossal tackle was whether the punter should have been fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Now the debate is whether a punter belongs in the mix. McAfee praised Huber on Twitter for being "tough" but also said the hit "made me sweat a bit."
Reached Wednesday by Yahoo Sports, McAfee said he has mixed feelings about the "defenseless" rule and the discussion of it after the Huber hit.
"I appreciate what the NFL is trying to do to protect kickers," he said. "But this kind of sets us back."
McAfee says the reputation of kickers is that they aren't really football players, and he along with some of his peers are trying to deflate that stereotype.
There is a bit of a divide among kickers and punters. Overall, they tend to be bigger and stronger than in the past. Jay Feely, for example, is known for his build and even has endorsed protein shakes and other products for a sports nutrition company. McAfee is 233 pounds and his Twitter avatar shows him with biceps peeking out of his T-shirt.
But not all kickers are recoiling against the "defenseless" label. "Some of us have a fire in our belly," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Rian Lindell, "and then another guy looks like a kicker and he'll hold off a little bit."
Lindell, reached by phone Wednesday in Tampa, admitted he used to have a "silent agreement" with would-be tacklers when he did kickoffs in Buffalo. He would slow up, and they wouldn't crush him. "It was like, 'You got me,' " he says.
"You see a linebacker lining up for a play," said Lindell (who is no waif at 6-foot-3, 227 pounds), "and it's like they're playing a different sport. They're trained at exploding and we don't. It's a bit of a mismatch."
That mismatch concerns Blandino and the NFL. Huber, though, isn't too bothered.
"It is what it is," he told reporters Wednesday. "It's part of the game, I know – big hits. Unfortunately I got one of the big hits, and I've got to deal with it. I'll be fine. I'll be back next year."
In all likelihood, so will the "defenseless" rule.