It happens all too often. A great return is called back because of a penalty and most of the time it is the block in the back and mostly it is a play that really had nothing to do with the work of the returning team getting to the endzone or down the field. That is not to say that there aren’t legitimate blocks from behind but like the adjustment to the facemask penalty, only serious infractions need to be penalized.
The genesis of this rule I believe was to prevent blockers running downfield from blindsiding would-be tacklers which gave them an unfair advantage and put the kicking team players at risk for injuries. The NFL interpretation of the rule states:
Blocker cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an opponent in a manner that restricts his movement as the play develops.
The defensive player cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an eligible receiver in a manner that restricts movement as the play develops.
(from NFL.com Rulebook)
In theory this sounds like a sound rule. The return team players must be ahead or at least even with the tacklers in order to attempt to block them. However the game happens at real time in real speed. Most times this penalty seems to occur when a tackler is running for the ball carrier and lunges for a tackle with the blocker behind him. It is simply the appearance of the penalty; player A flies into the air with player B running behind. Everyone who has a team they root for has seen this play because they have had a great return called back and been furious when the replay showed the touch foul. Touch fouls are for basketball(and ACC officials), in football a penalty has to be an egregious physical manipulation of another player.
I mentioned the face mask penalty rule change, which I think is applicable to the block in the back. The 5 yard, “unintentional” face mask penalty was discarded. In theory this means a player can inadvertently grasp a face mask and let go and it not be called. Only when a player’s mask is grabbed and pulled should the flag be thrown. Likewise, I think only certain blocks to the back should be called. Blatant body checks in the back in which a blocker launches himself at the tackler should obviously be called. Also, an obvious shove with both arms extended should be flagged. The other key I believe is unless it is a clear body check to the ground, the block in the back call should not be made if it occurs out of the area of influence of the kicker.
I know this is asking a lot of officials. It comes down to a judgment call, but isn’t that the majority of penalties if not all? Considering that more often than not it is the defenders’ momentum that carries him past the returner, many times blockers are punished for tacklers taking the wrong angle and making a vain attempt to tackle to runner. This does create a lot of gray area, but that already exists. As great as Devin Hester is, he has had at least a few returns called back because of an alleged block in the back that occurred either because some tackler made a desperate attempt to dive after Hester and there was a blocker behind him at the time or a small push in the back occurred after Hester was already blazing downfield.
Making the adjustment to the rule should not the highest priority on the list for the league, but it should be looked at. As much as judgment penalties such as pass interference and roughing the passer are scrutinized, it would be nice if we could eliminate unnecessary penalties on special teams as well.