Two weeks into the preseason, the backlash to the NFL’s new “helmet rule” has been as predictable as punting on fourth and long.
It’s another move to weaken an inherently violent game.
It’s not possible to block, tackle and avoid blocks and tackles without lowering the head.
It’s an impossible rule to officiate correctly because of the speed of the game.
If officials are going to throw this many flags, we’re going to see games last five hours.
There are some elements of truth in all the above, but there are two things I’m sure of:
The rule isn’t going away. And the NFL has done a lousy job of explaining it and detailing how it’s going to be called.
The language of the rule is simple, which makes its possible implementation broad.
It’s illegal for any player to lower his head and initiate contact with his helmet. The penalty is 15 yards. A player can be ejected if he lowers his head and establishes a linear body posture, has an unobstructed path to an opponent and could have avoided the hit.
“Did he go linear?” could be a catchphrase this fall when a game is stopped so an ejection can be reviewed by the league office.
Already we’ve seen how difficult the rule will be for officials.
Anyone who’s been anywhere near NFL game action is amazed by the speed, power and violence on display. It’s understandable that officials have blown calls numerous times this preseason, including the penalty assessed last week on Cardinals safety A.J. Howard, who made a perfect heads-up tackle.
Right now, the rule appears to be widely unpopular. Players don’t want to change the way they’ve always played, and fans enjoy seeing the resulting collisions.
Part of the problem, too, is that NFL officials are doing a terrible job of explaining the rule change to players and fans. Earlier this week, Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, tweeted what was supposed to be an instructional video about the new rule.
Included were three legal hits, three illegal ones and almost no instruction.
There were no graphics pointing to the offending player. There was no narration about what, exactly, the player did right or wrong.
A 14-year-old with 15 minutes of free time would have produced something far better.
A few hours later, Riveron tweeted an updated version of the video that included some graphics and animation that at least directed our eyes to the pertinent parts of the plays. Still no narration.
As someone replied to the second video: “That you had to repost with graphics and animation gives me a lot of confidence in how this will be called REAL TIME.”
Referees have said they will call the penalty a lot this preseason in the hopes of getting players to understand what they can and can’t do. But it’s clear that the start of the regular season won’t automatically bring clarity to how the rule is interpreted.
“I think that will be an all-year thing,” Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea said. “The tough thing about it is different refs see it different. All you can do is try to get your helmet out of the way, but some plays are just bang-bang.”
Bethea’s advice to the NFL would be “to throw the rule out of there. It’s garbage.”
A 13-year veteran, Bethea knows that isn’t going to happen.
Players have complained before about safety rules that have been implemented, usually by arguing they knew the risks when they signed on to play football.
It’s a valid argument, but it made me think of the spinal injury suffered last year by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who ducked his head to make a tackle.
Shazier grabbed his upper back, then flopped over, his legs dead weight.
Shazier is recovering and was cheered recently when he walked haltingly and slow, but unassisted, across a Steelers practice field.
No one is saying the new rule will make such injuries less likely. But it’s worth trying. Give it time.
Reach Somers at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kentsomers.