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Why the Helmet-Lowering Rule Has Barely Been Flagged—and Why That Might Soon Be Changing

It was the bane of the preseason’s first two weeks, then practically disappeared. What gives? Unlike the body-weight emphasis, the league has been working mostly behind the scenes to familiarize players with the new rule, using after-the-fact warning letters and some fines. Now, after five weeks, officials may be more inclined to throw the flag—against both defense and offense

Kareem Hunt had made three Broncos defenders miss before he sized up Justin Simmons.

About three yards away from Simmons and having already gained 18 yards on the dump-off from Patrick Mahomes, Hunt dipped the upper half of his body parallel with the ground, drove the crown of his helmet into the shoulder of a crouching Simmons and blew through the safety for another nine yards before going to the ground. The 27-yard gain for Hunt led to a first-quarter Chiefs field goal in what would be a 27-23 Kansas City victory.

Hunt’s hit on Simmons was a clear violation of the league’s new rule on lowering the helmet to initiate contact, but no flag was thrown. A few days later, however, the league notified him that the hit would cost him $26,739.

As we all focus on the roughing the passer rule that’s allegedly ruining football (and causing enough of a stir to be an SI cover story), the initial rule change that was supposed to ruin football in 2018 has gone as unnoticed in the regular season as it has gone uncalled—a marked difference from the early preseason, when such plays were flagged 60 times through the first 49 games. Through Week 5 of the regular season—78 games total—there have been just four flags for lowering the helmet.

For now, the league is trying to legislate such hits mostly after the fact, with warnings and fines rather than in-game penalties. Since the start of the season the NFL has sent out several dozen letters to players—on offense, defense and special teams—taking note of helmet hits. There are still kinks to be worked out. Of the four called penalties, only one of the players was later fined under the helmet rule (others were fined for different personal fouls after review). And three players, including Hunt, have been fined for lowering the helmet even though they weren’t flagged for it during the game.

The question now is, will the league keep the new rule tucked away, embarrassed to take it out for fear of alienating fans and upsetting officials, coaches and players—the way the body-weight roughing call caused such an uproar in the first weeks? Or, after an impossibly short implementation period, will we start seeing more calls, as officials and players alike get accustomed to the new rule?

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It’s inarguable that the helmet rule was designed with good intentions. After a reported 291 concussions during the 2017 season, the league sought more means to make a violent game safer. Executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent and the NFL’s competition committee paired concussion science with a video compilation of the sort of violent hits that were once lauded and decided that a momentous change needed to take place. The committee passed the rule in late March.

The change promised to be drastic. Think of the rise of spread football in the NFL—this would be the opposite of that. Seemingly overnight, NFL players would be asked to change the way they’ve played the game their entire lives. What propelled them to the top of their profession would now need to be adjusted, in a matter of a few dozen practices and a handful of exhibitions.

“Somebody didn’t tell me I did it wrong—I did it wrong,” Vincent emphasized by phone this week, talking about how he played during his 15 years as a hard-hitting NFL defensive back. “I played with bad intentions. I did things that today we would look at as inappropriate. I have two boys who play, and when I think about the quality of life for the men who play the game, this is a necessary change. That’s something that we can control today.”

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As well-intentioned as the move was, it was fraught with obvious problems from the jump. The officials didn’t get a full rundown from the league on the change until mid-May, when they returned to work from their own offseason. Less than a week after that, head of officiating Alberto Riveron was forcefully explaining the rule to a roomful of dubious journalists at the spring owners meeting.

At that May meeting the new rule was overshadowed by the league’s slipshod handling of its national anthem policy, but it was clearly a major story. In the past, safety rules focused primarily on defensive players, especially DBs and how they approached receivers; now everyone on the field would be subject to the rule. Defensive linemen firing off the ball. Running backs trying to plow through a defender for more yardage. Even, theoretically, pulling guards getting down to make a block. Just as holding could be called on every play in football, the helmet rule could conceivably be flagged on every down.

Riveron explained the rule’s application in four parts. The player must 1) lower his head; 2) do so to initiate contact with an opponent; 3) make that contact, whether to the head/neck area or not; and finally 4) the official must see the entire play. And he insisted that the rule would be strictly enforced.

“There’s no grace period. There’s no leniency,” Riveron said when I asked then if officials would call the rule differently in September as opposed to December. “No. This is going to happen now.”

But the ask was nearly impossible. With only edited teaching tape to go by, officials would have to know how to call the penalty in real time. Coaches would now have to teach to the rule, with less than a month of OTAs remaining plus training camp, and players would have to change their techniques in that same amount of time.

“We saw what happened in preseason Weeks 1 and 2 when we took it literally,” says Gene Steratore, the Super Bowl LII referee who is now a CBS rules analyst.

What it was, was chaos. Through the first 33 exhibitions, officials threw 51 flags for helmet-lowering. Steratore says officials were likely struggling with finding “the trigger.” An official, he notes, can almost anticipate a block in the back on a punt return because he or she can see the player finding his angle and knows what to look for. But because these are bang-bang plays that hadn’t previously been called, veteran and green officials alike were struggling with their split-second mechanism to determine what was and was not a foul.

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“When you get a point of emphasis and it’s the preseason and it’s that 50-50 call, maybe last year you didn’t call it because you didn’t think it was big enough to be a foul,” Steratore explains. “But because this year they said it’s a point of emphasis, when you see what took you right to the edge of not calling it [last year], you call it this year. You do that in the preseason because when you get graded the next day, you find out immediately if it’s a correct call right now.”

Players and fans were unhappy, and officials were likely over-calling things. The league had a crisis on its hands, and it knew it. Before Week 3 of the preseason, the competition committee held a conference call and decided that, while it would not change the language of the rule, it would emphasize that incidental or inadvertent contact was not a foul. Whether because of that tweak alone or something more behind the scenes, the NFL saw a massive decrease in penalties for the helmet rule the next week of preseason, when only nine flags were thrown in 16 games.

As the regular season started and controversial high-profile roughing calls consumed the public’s attention, the helmet rule faded into the background. But players are still leading with their heads, and there are more warning letters being written than flags being thrown.

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For a rule that was supposed to affect everyone the field, the four players who have been flagged for lowering the head have all been defenders: Cincinnati safety Shawn Williams, Jacksonville linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive end Malik Jackson and Minnesota defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Here’s where it gets interesting.

According to a league source, Jackson is the only member of that quartet who was fined by the league for that specific penalty. Williams, who was ejected from the game for his hit on Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 1, was fined for unnecessary roughness. The league fined Joseph for roughing the passer after the fact. And Smith didn’t get any fine from the league.

The helmet rule is a personal foul, same as roughing and unnecessary roughness. So the specific call is immaterial on the field, since it’s a 15-yard penalty no matter, and after the fact the league reviews the tape to specify what rule the fine falls under.

Still, there have been four fines from the league office for lowering the helmet, according to a source. Along with Jackson and the aforementioned Hunt, Arizona linebacker Haason Reddick and Baltimore linebacker Patrick Onwuasor have both been docked for the infraction, even though Hunt, Reddick and Onwuasor were not flagged on the field. (Fines for Week 5 action were not available at the publishing time.)

So the league went from flagging this penalty 1.5 times per game through two weeks of the preseason to flagging it in just 5% of all the regular-season games. But unlike some other rules that have been announced with gusto only to quietly disappear—remember when there would be a flag when the n-word was used on the field?—there’s reason to believe there will soon be an uptick in helmet-hit penalties.

Vincent and Jon Runyan, the league’s VP of policy and rules administration, are tagging these close hits on game days. They review tape on Monday and Tuesday and send out warning letters or make phone calls to players and coaches. Through Week 4 of the season, the league sent letters to 63 players. The majority of those went to defenders (44), but 14 offensive players and five members of special teams also got notices.

Last spring’s promise of no leniency has—thankfully—not been sustained. Instead, through the first month, the league has mostly taken a more gentle approach. Vincent recounts what a typical conversation with a player is like: “ ‘What we would like to do, if you could get those eyes up and head to the side. You’re putting yourself and your opponent at risk.’ We’ve see that be a very cordial conversation. The player and coach both appreciate a warning letter. It’s not [usually] a fine, because we understand there’s an adjustment period.”

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The warnings—and the Hunt fine—show that the league is looking for the call on both sides of the ball. Still, an in-game penalty has yet to be called against a player on offense, and that contributes to the perception that this is yet another rule aimed at defensive players. When Marshawn Lynch lowered his head and barreled through Denzel Ward with two minutes left in overtime in Week 4’s Raiders-Browns game, it appeared to be a clear violation of the rule. (Lynch, of course, has been running that way forever.) The same goes for Patriots running back Sony Michel, whose shot on Colts safety Clayton Geathers on Thursday night in Week 5 knocked Geathers out of the game.

But there is reason to believe we’ll be seeing flags on such plays, and other lowering-the-helmet shots, more frequently in weeks to come. Factors include a few puzzling misses by officials (some in prime-time games, no less); an adjustment in how the body-weight rule—the shiny object for the first month of the season—is being enforced, meaning less concern about an overabundance of flags; more experience by officials with the new rule in real time, after nearly 10 weeks of live-action games, preseason and regular season; an apparent need to address the imbalance toward the defense in calls and warnings; and the idea that, as Steratore notes, an after-the-fact fine for an infraction that went uncalled isn’t a good look for the men in stripes.

“When the public sees there are fines, the public should know that was a foul. It cost that player money,” Steratore says. “Well, the officials are the public, too. If someone got fined on a play I was covering and I didn’t have a foul—let’s just do the math there.”

What it adds up to is embarrassment for the officials for not throwing the flag. So now players and officials alike are on notice, and the penalty that disappeared may soon come out of hiding.

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