Ex-NFL players seek to educate current ones on helmet rule
Curtis Martin took and dished out plenty of helmet hits as he rushed for more than 14,000 yards in his Hall of Fame career.
He just wishes he didn’t have to endure that.
The retired running back sees the NFL’s enhanced rule penalizing players for leading with their helmets as a positive step for the sport. As a member of the player safety advisory panel, he’s part of a leaguewide effort to educate the current generation on how to stay on the right side of the rule and reduce injuries.
“Hopefully we can extend careers and just have less contact to the head, which I just think is beneficial over a long period of time,” Martin said by phone this week. “We’re really focusing on getting the head (contact) out of the game. I wish it was like that when I was playing. I think it’s something that’s very positive, and I think it’s important as we go forward and the future of the game.”
Martin and former linebackers Willie Lanier , also a Hall of Famer, and Willie McGinest taped minute-long “NFL Way to Play” instructional videos for players stressing stance, posture and technique. For specific examples of head-contact hits that are now 15-yard penalties or possibly ejections, there are situation-specific videos narrated by coaches Anthony Lynn of the Chargers (ball carriers ), Doug Marrone of the Jaguars (offensive linemen ), Dan Quinn of the Falcons (defensive linemen ), Mike Vrabel of the Titans (linebackers ), and Todd Bowles of the Jets (defensive backs ).
“I just had some things I wanted to try to share being a former player and having played that technique and coached that technique,” Vrabel said. “It’s what’s best for the game, the fundamentals. We always try to teach the fundamentals that are good: playing with your knees bent, leading with your hands and playing with your face up.”
After watching those videos, Redskins coach Jay Gruden said making sure players don’t use their helmets as weapons is “a big thing we’re trying to get over.” That’s the NFL’s emphasis: a helmet is for protection and not to be used as a projectile.
“You don’t necessarily want to hurt anyone,” Martin said. “As an offensive player, a lot of times, especially when you see those times when a player or whoever’s carrying the ball they’re very close to the sidelines, but before they go out, they decide they just want to punish that (defensive back). That’s where you see the helmet used as a weapon, and you want to cut things like that out of the game because it’s unnecessary, No. 1, and it just protects the players better.”
Bowles, who played defensive back for eight NFL seasons, illustrated in his video many of the shoulder-to-shoulder hits that are legal and expected. He contrasted them with some players who made helmet-to-helmet contact. Because the enhanced rule now makes helmet-to-anywhere contact a penalty, he knows it’s on coaches to give players a refresher on the proper way to tackle.
“It’s really teaching football to be played the right way,” Bowles said. “There are going to be hard collisions, but if the helmet’s up, and you have to keep the helmet out of the way and hit with the shoulder, which most of the teams do all the time. There’s an occasional head-to-head when someone’s putting their head down, but we don’t teach it any differently.”
Martin fully understands the football mentality of pushing for the extra yard and going for the big hit, so he figures it’ll take time for players to adjust. It’s his hope the culture change toward understanding head injuries helps players accept the updated rule for their own good.
“As former players, we can sit back and see how this rule would’ve been very effective for us when we were playing,” Martin said. “But when you’re in the midst of something, it’s like anything — when you’re in the midst of a problem, it’s hard to see the benefits of (fixing) that problem or the outcome or the potential positive things that can come out of that problem. Now that we’re on the other side, we can see that maybe a little clearer than current players can and as we’re able to inform them and teach, I think that they’ll come around.”