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Eli Manning's hit underscores need for the NFL's new helmetless rule

When that nasty head gash was opened on one of the NFL's headline players Monday night at New Meadowlands Stadium, the league's ex-VP of officiating, Mike Pereira, instantly realized that the sight of a bloodied Eli Manning was the kind of unfortunate but instructive teaching moment that illustrated why the NFL changed its rule this spring to protect the exposure level of a helmetless ballcarrier.

Ironically, when Manning got caught in the split-second backfield mayhem that ensued when he collided with teammate Brandon Jacobs and a pair of Jets defenders in the second quarter of the Giants' 31-16 preseason-opening win, it did not unfold over a time span that would have allowed referee Walt Coleman to whistle the play dead and protect the helmetless New York quarterback. The whipsawed Manning also lost possession of the ball just before his helmet went flying off, rendering the NFL's new rule moot because it only protects the ballcarrier.

But for anyone who might have questioned why the league took the step of ruling a play dead once a ballcarrier's helmet comes off -- a move that would have wiped out a memorable moment like the helmetless and nose-bloodied Jason Witten galloping 53 yards with a catch in a 2007 Dallas at Philadelphia Sunday night game -- Manning's lacerated scalp provided the answer.

"Even though the new rule doesn't apply to what happened to Eli, that kind of situation is exactly why they put the rule in,'' said Pereira, who retired from the NFL after the 2009 season and is now the rules and officiating analyst for Fox's NFL coverage. "That play answers any critic who says the new rule is not a good step. People who would say they'd hate to see the Witten play taken away from the game, well, you don't want to see what happened to Eli [Monday] night. That was tough. You're so vulnerable out there without a helmet. We saw what can happen. We got a reminder of the damage that can be done. In vivid color.''

Given the increased focus and emphasis on player safety in recent NFL seasons, and the ongoing discussion and debate about the impact of concussions and other football-related brain injuries, the decision to limit a helmetless ballcarrier's potential risk was not a controversial move this offseason. Longtime NFL competition committee members Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens and Rich McKay of the Atlanta Falcons told me there was little opposition to the new rule within the league when it was proposed.

"It's one of those rules where you go, 'Maybe we should have done this a couple years ago,' '' said McKay, the Falcons team president. "There's no play we can point to and say, 'Well, this rule would have saved that guy,' but it's just one of those rules that needed to happen. If you give people the reasons why, and explain the thinking behind it, there's not going to be much pushback on player safety issues. We're always going to err on the side of player safety. And if we lose the Witten play, that's just a byproduct that has to be sacrificed in this case.''

PHOTO GALLERY: NFL players losing their helmets

The new NFL rule actually followed a similar move made by the NCAA in recent years to immediately end plays once a ballcarrier's helmet came off. A member of the NCAA's rules committee met with the NFL's competition committee this winter at its working session in Naples, Fla., and briefed it on the particulars and results of its rule. Like the NFL, the NCAA doesn't stop play if a non-ballcarrier's helmet comes off, and Pereira said the league started down the road toward the rule change after tracking the instances of how many times players lost their helmets during play over the course of a season or two.

"We got concerned about the number of times guys were losing their helmets, so we started tracking it,'' Pereira said. "It wasn't necessarily the runner so much as it was happening during a lot of interior line play, where during the course of blocking a hand slips up under the face mask and the helmet comes off.

"You can get hurt, obviously, but the exposure isn't as great there. There are not guys flying at you from all angles trying to make a tackle. It was more about protecting the helmetless player who was in space, being pursued by other players. It wasn't unusual to see a helmet fly off three or four times a game, but far too many plays would be disrupted if you stopped the game every time any player lost a helmet.''

The force of the impact that Manning absorbed from the shoulder of his own teammate, Jacobs, sent his chin strap up over his face, causing his helmet to shift backward on his head. But when Jets linebacker Calvin Pace slammed into the quarterback from behind, Manning's helmet flew off like it was shot from a cannon. Manning's unprotected head then was driven into the face mask of Jets safety Jim Leonhard.

According to McKay and Pereira, as part of the league's increased awareness of the concussion issue, new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2006 started pushing an emphasis on the role that proper chin strap use plays in the safety issue, and also convened studies on the fit of helmets in the NFL. The helmet study and the focus on chin-strap use actually led to what McKay said might have been a slight decrease in the number of helmets being dislodged during a game.

From an anecdotal standpoint, it certainly seems as if more helmets are rolling around on the field these days as NFL players grow ever bigger, stronger and faster, creating even more violent collisions. But Newsome said the competition committee never saw enough evidence to determine whether helmets were coming off during games at a higher or lower rate in recent seasons.

"[The chin-strap] emphasis definitely helped us,'' McKay said. "Receivers had really become the group that was being hit in space the most, and for whatever reason, they were the also the group that were the slackest in terms of wearing their chin straps properly. We were seeing receivers really become very vulnerable out there once they lost their helmets.''

Added Pereira: "We had to get to the players and try to make them understand it was all a part of the concussion issue. We told them to fasten the chin straps. Get the right helmet fit. I would sit up in our control room [at the NFL headquarters] on game days and if I saw a player on TV not wearing [his] chin strap, I'd even call the stadium and tell our people, 'Go remind No. 17 to buckle that chin strap at all four contact points with the helmet.' ''

No rule or piece of equipment, however, would have likely saved Manning from the three-inch cut that required 12 stitches to close and may wind up costing him any chance to play in New York's second preseason game, Saturday night against visiting Pittsburgh. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a perfect storm of contact in a game known for its collisions.

"It was such a bang-bang play,'' said Newsome, the Ravens executive VP/general manager, with no pun intended. "There's nothing anyone could have done differently to protect Eli in that situation. The rule that we passed was designed more for the play where Jason Witten catches it and runs 30 or 40 yards without a helmet. With as much emphasis as there is on head injuries and concussions right now, we felt like him running like that, which was legal at the time, could cause some real harm. If he would have gotten into a contested position at some point during that play, what would have happened to him once a defender lowered his head on him?''

As you might recall, the Witten play, coming as it did on NBC's Sunday Night Football, was replayed endlessly and rhapsodized about at length by game analyst John Madden -- as the foremost lover of all things that illustrate football as the tough-guy sport it is. But now, alongside Witten's bloodied nose, we have the image of Manning's bleeding head in our collective memory. The NFL hopes that's the last head injury suffered by a helmetless player, but it probably knows better than to believe that. New rules or no new rules.

"Watching that play with Eli, the first thing I thought of was that rule didn't end up helping him, because what happened was so in the moment,'' McKay said. "But clearly we saw the result of a head being hit without a helmet on, and it's not good. We saw rather vividly what can happen in that case, and that was our motivation going into the rule change. You have to try to limit that kind of situation in the game.''

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