TEMPE, Ariz. — Chances are you saw the play in Pittsburgh where Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber got destroyed by the Steelers’ Terence Garvin during a return.
No penalty was called on the play, but the block knocked Huber out of the game with a broken jaw and cracked vertebrae, and led to a $25,000 fine for Garvin because punters and kickers have been deemed “defenseless,” even if looking to make a tackle.
It’s a term that Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely is not fond of.
“The term ‘defenseless’ I don’t like because of the connotation,” he said, noting it doesn’t mean a kicker can’t be hit or blocked, just can’t be hit helmet-to-helmet or above the shoulders. “That doesn’t keep somebody from trucking you, and it’s happened to me a number of times this year as they come through on blocks, but obviously the term itself has a connotation that you’re not a football player and I don’t like that.”
Like Feely, Cardinals punter Dave Zastudil is known to get in on a tackle from time to time. It’s something he’s always ready for and something he takes pride in.
“If it comes to you, you’ve got to be ready to make the tackle,” he said. “That’s how I always felt about it. I feel if there’s a play coming at us, I feel that we’re fair game.”
Zastudil said he understands the league’s desire to make the league safer, but believes if he’s trying to make a tackle, he should be a blockable player.
What it comes down to for both players is an understanding that they are one of 11 players looking to stop a return, and they are facing 11 others doing the best they can to pick up as many yards as possible. That means anyone who could be a threat to the return man is someone who needs to be taken out of the play.
Sometimes, that’s the kicker, and sometimes it looks real bad.
“You can’t think about that,” Zastudil said. “Kevin Huber’s a great punter, I felt bad for him, he’ll come back and he’ll be fine. First thing I saw, I was like ‘ouch, that just had to hurt,’ but that’s football. It’s just one of those things that happened.”
It happened because Huber was trying to make a tackle, and that means he — or any kicker looking to make a tackle –is fair game, according to Zastudil.
Feely feels the same way, and like his teammate, understands sometimes he’s going to get hit, but he’s not going to be less aggressive on the field because of it.
“It’s more about self-preservation, because I know if I’m in the open field with one of the best athletes on each team, and he’s got 20 yards on each side of me, I’m not going to make that play,” he said. “But if I go down there and I can see where they’re trying to create the seam and I can fill that gap and either make him bounce it or try to make a tackle and he’s got two yards on each side of me, well I’ve got a much better chance of making that play.”
And that’s just it: Arizona’s kickers are not with the play when the ball leaves their foot, when at that point they become part of the coverage unit. Their job, like everyone else on the team, is to prevent a big return.
“Any time a returner’s coming at you, you just do everything you can to try to tackle him,” Zastudil said. “You don’t really care what happens to you because you don’t want him to be in that end zone, that’s your mindset.
“So if you get hit on the play, so be it. Those guys are trying to score at the same time, too.”
It comes with the job.
“Everything I do, I want to do at the best of my ability,” Feely said. “I want to play as hard as I can. Whether that’s covering or kicking or running a fake, anything that I’m doing, I want to try and help my team win and that’s just part of it, it’s who I am.
“Even though my wife doesn’t like it, she wants me to stay out of there, I can’t stop being who I am.”
He’s a football player, and sometimes that means getting hit. But conversely, sometimes it’s the kickers who get to bring the punishment. Zastudil has been credited with seven tackles in his career, with three coming this year. Feely has three this year and 40 in his career, including a memorable one a few years back.
“I hit Ted Ginn really hard one year,” Feely said of a memorable tackle that occurred when he was a member of the New York Jets. “He was going wide and he cut back, and he cut right into me and I hadn’t broke a stride and I drilled him. He went back about four yards. I was screaming and yelling, and unfortunately he took the next one back for a touchdown, so he got his revenge.”
It’s all part of the game.