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Let’s Eliminate Penalties on Big Returns

Seahawks return man Devin Hester saw a huge punt return against the Falcons negated by a holding penalty. Never again.

Devin Hester (AP Images)
Devin Hester (AP Images)

With more than 10 minutes left in the second quarter of the Seahawks-Falcons game, Devin Hester, a 100-year-old 34-year-old kick and punt returner, fielded a punt at the Seahawks’ 13-yard line. He dodged the first tackler, cut up through the first wave of guys behind him, then turned on the big engines, snaking his way to the sideline and then up the sideline, before being finally being tackled near the 7-yard line on the Falcons’ side of the field. It was a beautiful run and an exciting run; the sort of thing you hope to see happen when you watch a football game. It was also, though, a for-naught run, because a holding penalty had been called on Seattle linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis at the line of scrimmage, erasing the play from existence.

The score then was 10–7, Seahawks, and they’d almost certainly have scored again right there, putting them up either 13–7 or 17–7. The penalty reversed their field position, though, pushing them back to inside their own 10-yard line. Less than one minute later, Russell Wilson would be tackled in his own end zone for a safety, and by the end of the half they were losing 19–10.

The holding call, which very much changed the shape of the game, was technically a correct call (Pierre-Louis literally just grabbed Atlanta’s LaRoy Reynolds and then fell backward with him), but it was also a horrible call, you know what I’m saying? Reynolds made an effort despite the infraction, scrambling to get up and then hustling downfield only to see Hester blow by him, so I suppose there’s an argument that Pierre-Louis holding Reynolds was directly responsible for Hester’s big return. Here’s my counterargument, though: Fuck that.

I propose that no away-from-the-play penalties be called on punt returns. It’s just too much of a net negative. It wipes away things that are too good. It’s not an even trade. So I would like to see them gone. Matter of fact, since we’re here and since we’re rewriting rules, let’s go a step further: I propose the erasure not only of away-from-the-play penalties on punt returns, but also of all penalties on punt returns. Punt returns should operate under some kind of football martial law. You want to hold someone? Hold them. You want to block someone in the back? Block them in the back. You want to run out bounds, pick up a folding chair, then run back out onto the field and bust the returner over the head on some Stone Cold Steve Austin shit? Go nuts. Do it. Anarchy is the order. Anarchy is the way.