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Making sense of this NFL rule is a heavy load

NFL took a step backward with its 2005 rule that allows players to push ball carriers forward

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley fumbles the ball as it is knocked away by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley fumbles the ball as it is knocked away by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson in an NFL wild-card playoff game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. The Bengals’ Sam Hubbard recovered the fumble and ran it back for a touchdown.

Emilee Chinn, Associated Press

There’s a YouTube video that features the 1903 Princeton-Yale football game — billed as “the first college football film.” Through the grainy images you can see players packed around the line of scrimmage running full speed at the defense, pushing the ball carrier forward into a violent, swirling mass of bodies as the defense gathers men to push back. All 22 players land in the pileup, then, without huddling, they repeat this play again.

It’s a tug of war in reverse.

Or a scene out of “Braveheart.” Picture the shield wall.

Does this sound like anything you’ve seen lately?

It’s brutal. There’s nothing pretty about it. The players don’t even bother to disguise it — no receivers in motion, no huddles, no spread formations, no real strategy, just brute force. The favored play of the day was the “flying wedge” in which players lined up in two wings on either side of the ball carrier, linking hands en masse and running straight at their opponents, while pushing the ball carrier forward.

Who knew they were ahead of their time? A tamer version of 1903 football has made a comeback in the NFL this season. The offense lines up in a tight formation with two beefy players lined up in the backfield to push the ball carrier forward. Sometimes they push him at the line of scrimmage in a designed play; at other times it occurs spontaneously, when a ball carrier’s progress is momentarily stopped. It’s like a rush-hour traffic jam, with cars racing up to ram it from behind.

Strangely enough, it has all become fashionable this season right smack dab in the middle of the era of passing and the spread offense. It is not quite the flying wedge — no one is linking hands and nowadays seven players are required to start on the line of scrimmage — but the concept is the same: Run over people en masse and push the ball carrier into the crush of defenders.

The NFL once banned the assisting of a ball carrier via pushing, pulling or carrying, but in 2005 the league lifted the ban for pushing. For some reason it really didn’t catch on — the pushing of the ball carrier by his own teammates — until this season.

It is very effective, but it can backfire as the Baltimore Ravens discovered during the fourth quarter of last weekend’s playoff game. From the half-yard line, Baltimore quarterback Tyler Huntley was under center with three teammates lined up behind him — including two large linemen. At the snap of the ball, the two linemen pushed Huntley from behind, but rather than stay low, Huntley stood up and extended his arms to push the ball over the goal line. The ball was slapped from his hands. Cincinnati’s Sam Hubbard caught the deflection and ran 98 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

But all this is beside the point. Why has the NFL allowed this sort of play? Who goes to a football game hoping that a rugby game breaks out? In the era of finesse — the proliferation of the passing game and spread offense — a modern version of the wedge has made a comeback 120 years later.

Whose great idea was this? Especially in an era when there is much discussion and concern about injuries and CTE (concussions). The NFL has created rules to reduce the collisions on kickoffs and banned the tackling of “defenseless” players and all but placed do-not-touch signs on the quarterback; but the league allows a pack of large men to congregate around the ball carrier and push him forward against the defense, which gathers its numbers and pushes back, the ball carrier sandwiched between thousands of pounds of humanity.

This is bound to lead to injuries. Refs are much slower to whistle a play dead when there’s a scrum than they are when it’s a single tackler taking on a ball carrier. It’s only going to get worse. Teams are only just beginning to exploit this hole in the rulebook, using it just in short-yardage situations. In the future, they could take full advantage of it, lining up a 300-pound lineman at quarterback and placing two or three 300-pound linemen behind him for the big push.

Why has the NFL allowed this sort of play? Who goes to a football game hoping that a rugby game breaks out?

Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him again?

The late 1800s and early 1900s marked an era when football was so dangerous because of such plays that President Roosevelt intervened. According to The Washington Post at least 45 players were killed between 1900 and 1905. Newspapers called the 1905 season a “death harvest.” Players didn’t wear helmets or protective padding, and the only way to stop the wedge was to dive into the mass of bodies. According to historical records, 22 players were killed in one year by the flying wedge.

There were calls to abolish football and some schools did drop the sport. Others switched to rugby, apparently deeming it safer. Roosevelt famously convened college coaches in Washington and ordered changes. Among other things, the flying wedge was banned by requiring six men on the line of scrimmage at the start of a play (now seven); the forward pass was legalized to spread the field (albeit while mandating a 15-yard penalty for an incompletion); a neutral zone was created between the offense and defense; and first downs were moved from five yards to 10.

Now, 120 years later, the NFL has taken a step backward by lifting a rule that made it illegal for the offense to push a ball carrier from behind.