When it comes to the NFL Rule Book, there are actually a few variations. There is the rule book as the casual observer generally assumes it to be. There is the rule book as it is actually enforced, albeit with occasional inconsistency, by the officials. And then there is the actual rule book itself, which often betrays our understanding of the former two variations.
This was a fact most recently pointed out by Mike Florio for Pro Football Talk, who wrote an article discussing the new language in what has come to be called the “Joey Porter Rule” after the rule, or what it was assumed to be, surfaced in the public eye during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff victory over the Bengals.
Late in that game, wide receiver Antonio Brown suffered a concussion after being illegally contacted in the head by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He lay prone on the field for some time, and among the personnel to come on the field to check on his wellbeing was Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter.
The majority of the outcry pertaining to his presence on the field seemed to focus on the fact that he was not the head coach, and only the head coach to enter the field, but as Florio points out, that is not how the rule was written.
The rule previously on the books Florio quotes as reading that “representative of either team are prohibited from entering the field, unless they are incoming substitutes, or team attendants or trainers entering to provide for the welfare of a player”.
A head coach is neither a player, attendant, or trainer, yet head coaches were routinely allowed to be on the field in the event of an injury. It should be noted that assistant coaches were often on the field as well, even earlier in that same game.
The point is that the way that a rule is written and the way that it is enforced are often in conflict, and that seems especially to be the case when it involves an injury. On a human level, it would almost be hard to deny somebody the opportunity to check on somebody that they care for who is injured.
The rule was reworded this past offseason to actually change the rule, however, as it now permits that “the head coach may enter the field to check on the welfare of a player who is injured”, and then specifically reads that “no assistant coach may enter the field”.
The wording of the rule seems clear, and perhaps even a direct response to that playoff incident, which is why it is referred to as the Joey Porter Rule. But when it comes to actual in-game circumstances, it will be interesting to see just how stringently this rule ends up being enforced, now that there seem to be clearer instructions as it pertains to the coaching staff.