The NFL’s effort to make football safer was expanded Tuesday by league owners who voted to approve a rule that seeks to take head-first collisions out of the game.
Discussions about curbing the worst collisions in the sport led to the drafting of a new rule that quickly went to a vote.
Playing Rule Article 8: It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. The player may be disqualified. Applies to any player anywhere on the field. The player may be disqualified.
— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) March 27, 2018
The exact verbiage and application of the rule won’t be finalized until the next NFL owners meeting in May. It won’t mirror college football’s targeting rule exactly, but it’s a concerted effort to change the way football is played at all levels.
McKay says NFL has been in touch with NCAA. Hope is to get high school, college, NFL rules/coaches all on the same page regarding lowering the helmet. Teach proper technique early, create a safer game.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 27, 2018
The NFL rulebook will now take a page out of the college book and be expanded to protect players further from helmet-to-helmet contact.
What’s different about the NFL now with the new rule?
If strictly applied by NFL officials, it could have a sweeping effect on the game. Lowering one’s helmet is an instinct that may be difficult to legislate out of the sport overnight. The result could be many more penalty flags and automatic first downs.
“The crown of the helmet rule got way too narrow,” Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich McKay said Tuesday. “This has very little requirement to it. This is simply, if you lower your head to initiate contact and you make contact with an opponent, it’s a foul.”
Between March and May, the NFL will hear from coaches about the rule and decide whether or not automatic ejections and/or official reviews are added as well.
But if every instance of a player lowering their helmet to initiate contact — helmet-to-helmet or otherwise — results in a penalty, it’d be a huge change to the entire sport. Imagine if every quarterback sneak was suddenly an offensive penalty.
Among the examples from McKay of a newly illegal hit was the attempted tackle by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier that ended his season in 2017.
Rich McKay says Ryan Shazier’s hit could’ve been flagged under existing rules for spearing, etc. But those types of hits weren’t getting called. Hope is new rule takes that technique out of the game.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 27, 2018
Shazier’s attempted tackle is both an example of tackling technique that the NFL is trying to take out of the game, and a play that would be difficult to correctly officiate if it’s now illegal.
The likely result is that it will only be used when an egregious hit occurs. But that brings plenty of ambiguity and judgment into play. Earlier Tuesday, the NFL got positive reviews for changing a catch rule that was plagued by those same issues. Now the league is running the risk of adding a rule that’s just as controversial and inconsistent.
Is this like the college football targeting rule?
The NFL will spend the next couple months determining whether or not automatic ejections are part of the language included in the new rule.
In college football, automatic ejections — which are then reviewed — are issued for violations of the “targeting rule,” which is defined in the rulebook as follows:
“Targeting” means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.
Launch — a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area
A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground
Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area
Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet
The biggest similarity between the NFL’s new rule and college football’s targeting rule is the last sentence that outlaws the lowering of the helmet to initiate contact. But for now, the NFL hasn’t officially added an automatic ejection, although that could be on the way.
What is the NFL and what are players saying about the change?
The league’s stance about the change doesn’t seem to indicate that they expect a huge difference on the field. According to the competition committee, it would’ve resulted in just 5-10 more ejections during the 2017 season:
There was more discussion on targeting this AM in the general session. Main point/emphasis to come out of it: Using the helmet as a weapon is what the league is trying to eliminate. NFL told the group there were about 5-10 plays last year, total, that would lead to ejections.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 28, 2018
The NFL also doesn’t believe it has to slow the game down much:
There is hope that with modern technology and command center in New York, play may not need to be stopped to review for possible ejection after a flag. But this is all part of what will be discussed over the next couple months. Clarity expected by May meeting.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 28, 2018
Players are unimpressed, though. Some of the league’s most vocal defensive players have expressed concerns.
“I don’t know how you’re going to play the game,” Washington cornerback Josh Norman told USA Today. “If your helmet comes in contact? How are you going to avoid that if you’re in the trenches and hit a running back, facemask to facemask and accidentally graze the helmet? It’s obviously going to happen. So, I don’t know even what that definition looks like.”
Text from former NFL linebacker: “Can’t believe how ridiculous this lowering of the head thing is. Go back and watch any game and you will see probably 30 to 50 examples of guys lowering their head on contact. A f——— mess. Why does the NFL want to self-destruct?”
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 28, 2018
“It’s ridiculous,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told USA Today. “Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you’re getting a ticket. (It’s) gonna lead to more lower-extremity injuries.”
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