Early in Monday's game, the Detroit Lions had a chance to take a commanding lead over the New York Giants. Already with a 14-0 edge in the first quarter, the Lions had just stopped the Giants on the verge of field goal range and were getting the ball back. However, after receiving the punt on their own 10-yard line, the Lions were called for roughing the kicker on the play, and the Giants were awarded the ball back. They would later score a touchdown on the drive. But was this the right call, or were the Lions the victim of another poor judgment from the officials?
Roughing vs. running into the kicker
First, it is important to establish the difference between the fouls "running into the kicker" and "roughing the kicker." This is an important difference because it was fourth-and-16, and a running into the kicker penalty is only a 5-yard infraction and does not come with an automatic first down like roughing the kicker does.
The NFL describes running into the kicker like this:
Running into the Kicker. It is a foul for running into the kicker if a defensive player:
(a) contacts the kicking foot of the kicker, even if the kicker is airborne when the contact occurs; or
(b) slides under the kicker, preventing him from returning both feet to the ground.
While roughing the kicker is detailed as:
Roughing the kicker. It is a foul for roughing the kicker if a defensive player:
(a) contacts the plant leg of the kicker while his kicking leg is still in the air; or
(b) slides into or contacts the kicker when both of the kicker’s feet are on the ground. It is not a foul if the contact is not severe, or if the kicker returns both feet to the ground prior to the contact and falls over a defender who is on the ground.
So the key differences here are 1) where the contact was made and 2) how severe the contact was. If contact was made with the kicking foot, it is considered running into the kicker. If contact is made with the plant foot (the non-kicking foot), it is considered roughing. In this situation, the decision is obvious (WARNING: DO NOT LOOK AT THE PUNTER'S LEFT FOOT IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH):
Jerome Couplin obviously comes into contact with the punter's plant leg.
Verdict: If the Lions did commit a foul, it should be roughing the kicker, not running into the kicker.
However, there are some caveats to the roughing the kicker rule, and here's where we may find an error in the officials' judgment (emphasis added):
No defensive player may run into or rough a kicker who kicks from behind the line unless such contact:
(a) is incidental to and occurs after the defender has touched the kick in flight;
(b) is caused by the kicker’s own motions;
(c) occurs during a quick kick or a rugby-style kick;
(d) occurs during or after a run behind the line;
(e) occurs after the kicker recovers a loose ball on the ground; or
(f) occurs because a defender is pushed or blocked (causing a change of direction) into the kicker; or
(g) is the result of a foul by an opponent.
Couplin is allowed to unintentionally contact the punter if he is blocked into the punter. It is very clear that Couplin is contacted by a blocker, which -- at least partially -- is to blame for the contact into the punter. Here's where the gray area begins, however. The rulebook specifically says that there must be a "change of direction" as a result of the blocking. Couplin was already headed for the punter, obviously, but did the block change the direction in which he was attacking the punter? That is not as clear:
In my opinion, Couplin was headed toward the punter's legs, hoping to block the punt with minimal contact to the punter. However, as a result of the Giants' blocker, his course is slightly altered and Couplin plows into the punter's plant leg.
Verdict: Couplin's route to the punter was redirected by the blocker, therefore a roughing the kicker penalty should not have been called.
There is one more important line in the rulebook: It specifically says "Note: When in doubt, it is a foul for roughing the kicker." In other words, in a split-second decision, if it looks like roughing the kicker, it is going to be called roughing the kicker. Couplin didn't commit a foul by the exact wording of the rulebook, but in a league desperate to appear concerned about player safety, that call is going to be made more often than not.