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Joe Thomas on the New Helmet-Hit Rule: If It Makes the Game Safer, I’m For It

The new rule may sound radical, says the recently retired Browns stalwart, but let’s hold off on the extreme criticism until we see what the final wording is and how it plays out on the field. In general, players should be in favor of a rule that reduces concussions and catastrophic injuries

My first reaction to the new rule passed by the NFL owners Tuesday on restricting some helmet hits was that I want to wait to see what the final language on the rule is. Because at its core, reducing the number of times you’re hit in the helmet as a football player is a very good thing.

Right now, the league’s vow to penalize players who lower their head to initiate contact with the helmet can be interpreted a lot of different ways. As players—and I just retired after an 11-year career—we’re taught to not use the crown of the helmet to hit anything. We’re taught to see what we hit, and to avoid helmet hits as often as possible. But without knowing exactly what the rule is going to say, I can’t pass judgment on what kind of impact it’s going to have on the game. No one can. My understanding is that the league will get input from coaches and players over the next few weeks before rolling out what the exact rule is later this spring. So we need to wait and see what the NFL institutes before going crazy about it.

A couple of points I think are important to consider here.

We need to be cautious about interpreting concussion stats right now. The NFL announced after the season that the number of documented concussions increased from 244 in 2016 to 291 this past year. But I’m not sure there was a big difference in the number of actual concussions, because every year players get more and more aware about reporting concussions and about the danger of them.

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I’ll tell you a story from this past year with the Browns. One Monday after a game, our first-round draft pick, Myles Garrett, came in and reported some concussion symptoms after playing on Sunday. He was thoroughly examined and diagnosed with a concussion. I’m not sure that would have happened four, five, six years ago. A player might have told his buddy, but often times he wouldn’t have reported it. In this game, you play with pain, and you just move on. But with the league emphasizing concussion awareness so thoroughly now, players are more likely to self-report than they would have even a few years ago.

Plus, our medical teams are so much more aware, and are looking so closely at hits that might cause concussions. I think there was a tendency not too long ago for team doctors to worry that their jobs were on the line if they took players out of the game. Now that’s mostly been taken out of the coaches’ hands, and the sideline diagnosis is much better. So I would be cautious about looking at the increase in stats, because doctors are going to err on the side of concussion awareness right now.

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Football’s a traditional game, and whenever you change a rule that sounds revolutionary, the reaction’s going to be extreme. Football’s a game that is really entrenched in tradition. All sports are. Look at baseball now, with people going nuts over the idea of a pitch clock to speed up the game. When a player hears you can’t lower your head to hit anybody, his first thought is, I’m gonna have to play differently. But really, is he? If you’re trying to look out for the long-term health of the players, wouldn’t you want to eliminate hits with the crown of the helmet. I think players will adjust.

We’re talking about the future of football, and the future of players’ health. And if the rule is going to be you can’t hit a guy by lowering your head and using the crown of the helmet—I mean, that’s the way it’s being taught now. I repeat: I want to see what the wording is, but if that’s the general meaning of it, I’m in favor of it, and I think most players would be.

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If this rule, however it ends up being put on the books, can lessen the chance of concussions and catastrophic injury in the NFL, I’m all for it. I think we all looked at the play that Ryan Shazier got hurt on, when a great player used his helmet and suffered a spinal injury, and none of us ever want to see that happen again. If this rule helps that play become extinct, I think it’s a good thing.

I don’t see many of the kind of hits where a player uses the crown of the helmet anymore. I don’t even see it very often on running plays, when it used to be you’d see—and hear—some violent collisions when the defensive player met the running back head on. Players are being taught to tackle with their shoulders, without using the head or aiming for the head.

I hope the NFL asks players and coaches in the coming few weeks for their input, and I hear the league is going to do that. This is a great, great game, and I think only good can come if we continue to take more of the helmet hits out of it.

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