- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the hot NFL topics in recent days centers on the blindside hit that Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber took from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terence Garvin. Huber suffered a broken jaw and cracked vertebrae, injuries that ended his season. ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi has studied the play and considered what might be done to avoid similar situations in the future, and he offers his analysis:
"I do believe there was a foul on the play [even though it wasn’t called]. The crown of Garvin’s helmet made contact with the chin/neck area, so yes, I believe a penalty should have been called. If Garvin used his shoulder and lowered his target area, that would have been a legal block.
"What interested me was the explanation given by NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino on [the] NFL Network, when he said that punters are defenseless throughout the down. When you initially think about that – a player being defenseless throughout the down and not being subject to the same types of hits as others – some might consider it ridiculous. But I believe Blandino is correct. The majority of kickers and punters don’t have the same strength, speed and abilities as the other 21 players on the field. I would even stretch it to say, ‘All specialists are in that category – punters, kickers, holders, long-snappers.’ They provide a special skill that has to be executed for certain special-teams plays to be run. They train differently. They work out differently.
"A part of me believes that if you're on the field you should be subject to the same risks as every other player. However, I recognize how the game is progressing with player safety and how that is so important for the future of the NFL.
"Thus, what I think should happen is this: Specialists should be required to wear a different color jersey – a neutral color – and players will know that certain color jersey can’t be touched. Wearing that jersey, specialists then surrender their right to participate in the down once their act is executed. So, for example, after Huber punts the ball he has no right to make a tackle, he’s eliminated from the play.
"Blandino is right – these players are defenseless throughout the down. I played with kicker Adam Vinatieri and saw him run down Herschel Walker, but it’s rare for a kicker to have that type of toughness. Sure, you see some punters and kickers making tackles. Usually they are the last line of defense. It can be argued that even when they do make the tackle it looks awkward and they are still putting themselves at risk. The best way to protect them is to take them out of the equation completely and introduce the neutral jersey.
"All players know the neutral jersey because it’s used across the NFL in practices. You see it with quarterbacks or players coming back from an injury, they come out wearing a red jersey and there is a different tempo used for that player. On plays where there is potential for a high-impact collision, other players are trained to yield to that jersey. So it’s already in the psyche of players because it’s used around the league in practices. It now needs to be used in game situations, protecting specialists from violent collisions against linebackers, defensive ends, fullbacks and others who are trying to keep their own jobs by making crushing blocks that often injure or end seasons for specialists."