Player safety must trump exceptions to the rule
During the Ravens-Steelers Thanksgiving night football game, the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell was lunging toward the goal line when he was hit with a devastating blow from the Ravens, knocking his helmet off. Bell maintained consciousnesses long enough to fall across the goal line with the ball. The officials initially awarded Bell with a touchdown; however referee Clete Blakeman properly applied Rule 7-2-1(r)
An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended … when a runner’s helmet comes completely off.
This is combined with other dead-ball situations that are inflexible, such as down by contact, ball out of bounds, and forward progress stopped.
Many thought this was unfair, and the rule “cheated” Bell out of a touchdown after putting his body on the line. But there are two reasons why a play like Bell’s, as good as it was, can never be a touchdown.
1. Player safety. The rule was instituted to end plays like this helmet-less run by Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (video). In this day and age of player safety, and the campaign protect the players’ heads, the NFL was almost forced to make this rule. While there are many exceptions to NFL rules, in the interest of player safety, the NFL cannot budge on this one. A potential change could be to have the official delay the whistle until the player makes a “football move,” thus allowing a lunge like Bell’s into the end zone. But, the NFL must protect the player and get the play shut down immediately when the helmet comes off. What if the NFL allowed the player to make a “football move,” the referee hesitates for a second or two, and a defender lays out the helmet-less ball carrier? That could result in a critical, even fatal, injury. The play must end immediately, no exceptions, even if it means a play like Bell’s is wiped out.
2. No grey area. In this case, an official’s judgement must not factor in when making the ruling. Blakeman may have regretted taking the Bell touchdown away, but the rule did not allow him any leeway. Officials make several judgement calls during each game, but the NFL, in the interest of player safety, does not allow each official to apply their shadings to the lost helmet rule. The NFL wants their officials to be consistent in applying the rules properly, and a black-and-white rule like the helmet rule, makes the ruling consistent every time.
It is a shame that Bell’s great play did not result in a touchdown; however for player safety, the NFL and its officials cannot make any exceptions.