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The vise squad can hold the gunner until he gets between or "even with," the two players blocking him, wrote NFL vice president of communications Michael Signora in response to SI's question, Is there anything these guys can't do to the poor gunner? "Once he gets even with the blockers, they have to let him go, and they can never take him to the ground," though that latter prohibition, Signora admits, is "more of a philosophy than a rule."
"There are basically no rules," says Houston special teams coordinator Joe Marciano, who notes that the official monitoring vise-on-gunner violence is often 50 yards downfield. (The zebra at the line of scrimmage, just a few yards from the gunner, focuses on the interior line the moment the ball is snapped.) The only way for the defenders to get flagged, Marciano says, is if they pull the gunner to the ground, "but if it's two guys on one," he adds, "there's no need to pull him to the ground, 'cause you can cheat like hell with your hands inside."
Like pass rushers, gunners employ an arsenal of techniques to get off the line of scrimmage. "You need a go-to move, a countermove and a backup or two," says the Colts' Joe Lefeged, "or you're going to get embarrassed." And pure speed is instrumental. "Going against a double team, no amount of shaking and baking is going to work," says Marlon Moore, an ex-Dolphin who, like Osgood, signed with the 49ers this off-season. "You need to run, run, run and not slow down."
Many gunners go with a speed release—taking the outside edge as fast as they can—toward the sideline, beyond which lies one of the more surreal experiences in sports. The NFL has rules to control the minor bedlam that ensues when a gunner is forced out-of-bounds, into an obstacle course of coolers, chain gangs, team chaplains, NFL Film cameramen and, depending on the month, misting fans or heaters. But those rules are subjective—more of a philosophy—and sometimes just add to the confusion.
The gunner, it bears noting, can't just seek the (sometimes) safe harbor of the sideline—beyond which the vise must cease and desist—straightaway. He must be driven from the field of play. Just as Dementors may not enter the grounds of Hogwarts, the vise squad cannot follow gunners out-of-bounds. (Zebras at the Raiders-Chiefs game last Oct. 28 missed Oakland's gunner being blocked 15 yards out-of-bounds, then deposited on the bench. "We watched that play about 10 times," marvels Ravens gunner Corey Graham. "I couldn't believe the dude got away with it.")
Time was when the gunner could use the sideline as a sidewalk, reentering the field of play at his leisure. But the NFL outlawed that practice in the late 1990s. Gunners now must attempt to get back inbounds "within a reasonable amount of time," according to the NFL rule book. That rather elastic decree is often called the Tasker Rule, an unintentional homage to the best gunner in NFL history.
THE YEAR was 1986, and Steve Tasker had been claimed off waivers from the Houston Oilers to the Bills earlier that season. Covering a punt against the Jets, he was forced out-of-bounds. "I'm running through the bench area," recalls Tasker, now a broadcaster for CBS Sports, "and no one touches me. The Jets farther up the sideline are watching the return—they don't even know I'm there. So I run past the bench, pop back onto the field and make the tackle."
I might be on to something here, Tasker thought. He started making more frequent use of the sideline. While league officials may not have noticed—the Tasker Rule wasn't passed for another 13 years—opponents did. Tasker remembers running under a punt against the Giants on a frigid December day in 1990. Taking his now customary detour, he noticed kicker Matt Bahr and punter Sean Landeta standing in front of New York's bench, "wearing these big, hooded capes." The next thing he knew, he was skidding along on his face mask. "Landeta stuck his foot out and tripped me," says Tasker, laughing at the recollection. "If I'd been on the sideline, I'd probably do the same thing." (Landeta has denied this happened.)
Tasker was less outraged than many when Jets strength coach Sal Alosi notoriously stuck out his left knee to trip Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll in December 2010. "I was thinking, Hey, welcome to the club," Tasker recalls. "It happens."
Unlike in Tasker's day, however, that act was analyzed, criticized and dissected. Alosi had stood in a line with five inactive players at the outer edge of the white, six-foot stripe surrounding the field, intent on impeding the gunner's progress. The Jets had apparently used the "human wall" all season. Alosi fell on his sword, claiming—implausibly—that the idea had been his alone. Coach Rex Ryan and then special teams coach Mike Westhoff channeled Sergeant Schultz: They knew nothing. In the end Alosi was suspended for the season and later resigned.