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Helmet rule heads into 2018 without further revision



NFL owners have but two residual playing rules proposals on their agenda entering the spring meeting in Atlanta: major revisions to the formation and contact on kickoffs and to expand the ability for the chief staff at the replay nexus to review.

What is absent is any revision to the helmet rule: a proposal that was hastily thrown into the March meeting agenda and voted before the media even saw the text of the proposed rule. I initially reserved judgement on the rule, considering it to be in an unfinished form. With no plans to revise, the rule will stand as written.

Despite the speed in its enaction, the use of the helmet was certain to be placed foremost on the agenda. Before a Monday night audience last year, a series of legal and illegal helmet hits was on grotesque display; five months later, a standing ovation was given to injured Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier for publicly demonstrating his ability to walk. This provided the Competition Committee with no more directive than “do something.”

The Committee initially walked out an emphasis point that would allow for more strict interpretation of the helmet rules without a strict rewrite of the policy. What appears to have happened is that the owners balked that the “do something” was not doing enough, so committee chairman Rich McKay likely pulled a discarded proposal from his recycle bin, labeled it “Proposal 11” and was passed.

The crown-hit rule was instituted in 2013, prohibiting forcible contact with the hairline or crown of the helmet. The interpretation was narrowed to include certain approach vectors and contact types, in what was initially described to Football Zebras by the league as a sort of acclimation season to increasingly stricter helmet-hit enforcement. What did increase was the number of non-calls under the crown hit rule, in some cases correctly called legal (but questionable) hits under the department’s interpretation.

For the 2018 season, that crown-hit definition is scrapped entirely, and replaced by a simple directive in Rule 12-2-8:

It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.

The language that excludes incidental contact is removed. The exception that applies to contact in the tackle box, deleted. Even the provision, “the player may be disqualified if the action is flagrant,” is changed to remove if the action is flagrant. This edit is significant; it means that intent will be removed from the equation, potentially making the violence of a hit an ejectable offense. In 2018, there were a staggering 20 ejections — all for routine post-play action that called for ejection — and yet there should have been more. The league wielded its suspension power where ejections may have been warranted, but ultimately were not, possibly due to nonspecific criteria and the finality of a disqualification.

The mantra has consistently been to favor the side of keeping a player in the game, because to improperly, or even marginally, eject a player would have disastrous consequences. And, unless I have missed something more recent, the last live-ball foul to result in ejection was a 2009 flagrant fair-catch interference.

Ejections will certainly be on the rise, signaled by the Competition Committee’s willingness to have the replay command center review and potentially reverse ejections. The scales of justice on the field will tilt the other way: eject first, and let the home office reverse it if necessary. The owners already passed a rule change that allows the command hub to issue ejections themselves if the situation warrants, but only in situations where a foul is already called.

Executive vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent indicated on Twitter (with video examples below) that a 3-point criteria is likely to be in place for determining ejectable hits:

  1. Lowering the head to establish a linear body posture
  2. Has an unobstructed path to the opponent
  3. Contact was avoidable

But returning to the simplicity of the rule: “lowers his head to initiate and make contact.” This provision will include a great number of hits, both by the defense and by the ball carrier. It does not single out grappling in the trenches and any maneuver to gain leverage which causes incidental helmet contact, actions which will create difficulties for linemen and officials alike. On the defensive side, the photo above that shows Shazier cannot see his target, so even if he does not make contact with the runner’s helmet, he is putting his own body in peril. The league has attempted various measures to enforce that attackers see more than just the ground on an attack.

It will be a profound and fundamental change to the game. Will it change the game into a sport you do not recognize? Perhaps for the Millennial Generation, but possibly to something more familiar to Baby Boomers and maybe some old-school Gen Xers. While highlight packages only recently de-emphasized violent bellringers, consider this collection of a bygone, pre-cable “Jacked Up” segment, and take particular note of the helmet use:

Now, were there helmet-to-helmet hits in the Night Train Lane era? Probably, but not nearly as prevalent, partially owing to the fact that the first helmet designs still transferred a significant amount of impact back to the skull.

Perhaps an intermediate restriction might have been more effective, as the youth players of the aughts come of professional age in the coming years, having been taught “the new way” to keep the head out of the play. It will be a challenge to conform, and I expect a lot more roughness fouls as a result, and the 7 suspensions last year for illegal hits would presumably also be ejections under the 2018 rules. (One of those 7 suspensions was overturned to a large fine.) 

Update 5/23: Vincent states that there were 3 identified situations where the new helmet-hit rule would result in ejection. To be clear, this does not include other fouls where helmet contact was ejectable, such as hits on defenseless players and illegal blindside blocks.

Successful teams, however, will coach accordingly and prioritize legal techniques in the offseason workouts, rather than eventually ceding the opponent large chunks of yardage through fouls.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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