Of all the rules changes approved this week at the NFL owners meeting, none is more controversial than one now barring players from forcibly initiating contact with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box.
Some running backs, NFL head coaches and fans have expressed concerns about football’s hard-hitting essence being watered-down further by another rules change prohibiting the kind of blows that helped build the league’s popularity and made bruising running backs like Larry Csonka, Mike Alstott and Christian Okoye into iconic figures.
The rule still passed Wednesday morning by a 31-1 margin with only the Cincinnati Bengals voting against it.
“I just think there are certain hits we can take out of the game without hurting the integrity of the game,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara said. “It’s still going to be a very physical, violent game. But there are just certain things that are unnecessary.”
The exact wording of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 is as followed:
“It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.”
The rule follows other recent changes that the NFL says are designed to make the game safer, especially when it comes to protecting a player’s head. They also come at a time when the game of football is facing unprecedented challenges.
More than 4,000 former players are part of a class-action lawsuit claiming that the NFL didn’t properly treat or diagnosis concussions or brain damage that they suffered. There also are fears that an increasing number of parents won’t let their children play football because of the belief it is unsafe.
Mara admitted that one of his former players, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, would initiate downfield contact by lowering his helmet and “was very effective in doing it.”
“But we’re trying to protect the runner and defender,” said Mara, who is a member of the NFL’s competition committee that crafted the rule wording for the owners’ vote. “Those hits eventually could take a toll on you.”
Mara became an advocate after watching video of such contact with two members of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee. Mara said those committee members were surprised that more serious injuries hadn’t occurred.
One example of how dangerous using the crown of the helmet can be happened last December when Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman suffered a dislocated shoulder when rammed by Seattle fullback Michael Robinson. Philadelphia safety Kurt Coleman had his helmet dislodged in spectacular fashion when clobbered by Cleveland running back Trent Richardson.
New NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino said earlier this week that the league used Week 16 of last season for a sample size. Blandino said of the 34 plays in which helmet-to-helmet contact occurred, five involved the crown of the helmet. Those would have drawn a 15-yard penalty under the new guidelines.
However, the enforcement of this infraction has come into question because it will require officiating crews to make an on-field judgment call. This places even more pressure on officials who are already under intense scrutiny trying to enforce black-and-white rules.
Mara said the NFL took that concern under consideration when meeting with officiating representatives.
“They all seem to think they would be able to spot the obvious fouls,” Mara said. “The standards are going to be a little different here than the hits on defenseless receivers where the officials are instructed to err on the side of player safety and throw the flag if it appears the contact is in the head or neck area.
“We’re not telling them to do that. Just call the obvious ones where it’s clear-cut.”
Although the Minnesota Vikings voted in favor of the proposal, head coach Leslie Frazier said he didn’t support the proposal Wednesday morning while meeting with the media. One of Frazier’s top players – running back Adrian Peterson – will be directly affected by this rule because of how frequently he initiates contact with defensive players.
St. Louis Rams head coach and NFL competition co-chairman Jeff Fisher said running backs can learn how to lower their shoulder rather than lead with their helmet. Frazier wonders if that’s easier said than done.
“That would be the concern – what effect it will have on a running back’s style of play?” Frazier said. “Will it make those guys begin to think a little more on contact or will they continue to be instinctual in the way they run?
“It’s such an instinctive position. The jury is still out.”
The NFL, though, has already made its judgment.
John Mara and Leslie Frazier were interviewed by Alex Marvez and co-host Jim Miller on SiriusXM NFL Radio.