When the NFL’s competition committee convened Wednesday afternoon for one of its regularly scheduled conference calls, neither the catch-no catch rule nor the changes to the kickoff came up in conversation—both significant rule changes in the NFL this offseason. Rather, the conversation was dominated by the new helmet-lowering rule that has been the talk of the preseason.
For those who have complained about the rule: Get used to it, because it isn’t going anywhere. The NFL will not be changing the rule that was passed earlier this year, nor will it be expanding replay to review these calls. But after seeing the first two weeks of the rule being enforced in live action for the first time, and receiving feedback from players, coaches and officials, the competition committee’s discussion focused on ways to clarify aspects of the rule and how to more accurately enforce it moving forward.
The new rule, passed by team owners in May, flags a player for a 15-yard penalty if he lowers his head to initiate and makes contact with his helmet against an opponent, on any part of the field in any type of play. Egregious hits can be further penalized with an ejection and/or fine. Through two weeks of the preseason, 50 flags for lowering the head to initiate contact have been thrown, an average of about 1.5 per game.
To put that into context with other penalties, there have been a total of 167 holding calls (130 offensive and 37 defensive) and 65 pass interference calls (23 offensive and 42 defensive) this preseason. The vast majority of calls under this rule have been against defensive players going to make a tackle; just three of the 50 were called on offensive players during a play from scrimmage, two of whom were blocking and one running back carrying the ball (Deadspin has a log of every play that has been flagged under the new rule this preseason).
The accuracy rate of the helmet-lowering calls has been much lower than for other penalties, somewhere around 75%, according to one club executive. The goal is for more than 90% of calls to be correct, and you could certainly make a case for replay to be used as a crutch as officials adjust to calling this new rule. But one person with knowledge of the discussion on today’s call said that using replay to aid accurate enforcement was not a main subject of debate Wednesday for this reason: The NFL does not use replay for any other penalty, and does not want to go down that path of applying it to subjective calls like this rule or, say, pass interference.
The statement the NFL released after today’s call described “no changes” to the rule but added, “the committee also determined that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul.” That is a point discussed by the committee as something that needed to be clarified to players, coaches and officials.
Another point made on the call: While the NFL is trying to eliminate from the game the dangerous linear posture—where the head and neck are in line with the spine, creating maximum risk for the players tackling and being tackled—just seeing a player in that posture is not automatically a foul. The player must also contact the opponent with his helmet from that posture. The rule was written with intent baked into it, meaning it is not a penalty simply to lower your head, but to lower your head and to initiate and make contact with the opponent. Some players who have lowered their head to brace for contact or in an effort to get under a runner to make a tackle have been penalized thus far in the preseason, but the rule is not meant to be applied that way. The NFL’s head of officiating, Al Riveron, will be sending a new video to both officials and teams emphasizing some of the points discussed on today’s call.
Riveron has already pointed out some of the erroneous calls made in a video distributed to media after the first week of the preseason. One such error was the flag thrown on 49ers safety Elijah Lee while tackling Dallas RB Bo Scarbrough, which drew criticism from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Another example of a mistake, per Riveron, was the flag thrown against Cardinals safety Travell Dixon on his tackle of Chargers receiver Geremy Davis. Dixon exhibited the linear posture, but contacted Davis with his shoulder and not with his helmet, so he should not have been flagged.
Some prominent players have spoken out against the rule, notably 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who called the rule “idiotic” and said it should be “dismissed immediately.” He responded to a clip of a play shared on Twitter by the agent of 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, who was flagged for a tackle in punt coverage in which he only contacted the opponent with his shoulder. That play will likely be on the NFL’s error reel for preseason Week 2.
But many coaches around the league have not wavered in their backing of the rule, including the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, one of the elder statesmen who spoke up in support of the rule change at league meetings in Orlando in March. There was no panic on today’s call, according to the person with knowledge of today’s discussion; the league has been expecting a two- to three-year adjustment period, akin to what took place when the first defenseless player protections were introduced in the early ‘90s. Another factor is what referee Brad Allen told reporters at Gillette Stadium earlier this month, that crews would err on the side of throwing flags in the preseason as they gained experience in how to call this play in real time.
Last season, NFL players were diagnosed with 291 concussions, and when members of the competition committee and the league’s health and safety team reviewed those plays, what stood out most was not a play type but a behavior—players lowering their head to make contact. The NFL’s film review showed that 57 of last season’s 291 concussions, about 20%, came on plays that would have been flagged under the new helmet-lowering rule, a number that does not even include such fouls within the tackle box.
As we’ve seen so far this preseason, there’s going to be a bit of a messy acclimation period for all parties, but this is the reason why the NFL is holding fast on this rule change.
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