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NFL's latest helmet/hit rule puts coaches in bind

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

PHOENIX – St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher spent a couple of minutes describing the different areas of the helmet in the aftermath of the NFL's latest move to curb head violence. He pointed out the four regions of the helmet that commonly are subject to hitting, from the facemask to the hairline to the side to the crown.

Sadly, the real problem these days is that Fisher and his fellow coaches are hamstrung when it comes to teaching the proper way for players to hit each other.

On Wednesday, the league voted 31-1 to ban ball-carriers and defensive players from initiating contact by using the crown of his helmet once he gets outside the tackle box (the area between the offensive tackles) and more than 3 yards downfield. This means anytime a runner breaks into the open field and braces himself to take on a tackler, the runner can no longer lead with his head.

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Violent runners like Adrian Peterson might have to change their approaches moving forward. (AP)

The league also altered some other regulations, such as eliminating the "Tuck Rule", a call made (in)famous by Oakland and New England in a 2002 playoff game and banning defensive teams from overloading (and possibly injuring) offensive linemen on field goal and point-after plays.

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But the helmet rule was the subject of lengthy and healthy debate and even featured hysterical reaction by some who think this is the latest sign that the NFL is going softer than the lingerie league. Of course, juxtaposed against the images of great runners like Earl Campbell back in the day or Trent Richardson just this past year using their heads first are the stories of players, one after another, dealing with dementia, CTE or some other brain-related injury.

"You look at some of the numbers about concussions and chronic hitting and it's a very serious thing," said Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, a former player himself. "Those plays out in the open field are the ones that you can see lead to concussions and the statistics are showing that running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs are having the most problem with this long-term."

The league's research from two weeks last season found that there were 11 total plays that would have resulted in penalties (a 15-yard spot-of-the-foul call) under the new rule. That's about 94 projected flags over a 17-week schedule.

The league continues to do everything it can short of getting rid of helmets to prevent players from using the helmet as a weapon. Or as most players are taught from the first time they put on pads, see what you hit, don't lead with your head. The problem for men like Fisher is that teaching proper technique is harder these days with the increased need to keep the best players healthy (particularly in the salary cap era) and recent limits to practice.

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"There's not as much of the thudding and fitting up that used to happen when I played," said Murphy, who played for Washington from 1977-1984. "That makes it harder to teach the proper technique.

"But the coaches are in the room saying, 'Hey, we have to go back to teaching proper tackling.' "

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John Harbaugh says proper tackling technique is hammered home to his players. (USA Today Sports)

Likewise, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh had little problem with the rule because he said he and his coaches try hard to teach the proper technique of leading with a shoulder instead of the head.

"What we are talking about is keeping the head up," Fisher said. "When you are making contact with the hairline, your head is basically up. We have said it numerous times about bringing the shoulder back into this."

Former running backs Eric Dickerson and Eddie George have been critical of the rule in recent days. George, who played for Fisher, even called to express his concern.

"Eddie George said, 'What is going on?'" Fisher said. "He took the position that this is going to be a difficult thing to enforce and a difficult way to play this game. After a 15-minute conversation, he changed his mind and said, 'That makes sense. I would be in favor of that.'"

Other coaches were dubious. The New York Jets' Rex Ryan laughed sarcastically on Wednesday when asked about the vote on the rule. Minnesota's Leslie Frazier wondered about running back Adrian Peterson's ability to protect himself from a hit before ultimately coming around to the league's position.

That thinking is influenced lately by the pending concussion litigation by former players. The NFL has turned its health and safety updates into a mantra.

So now comes this change. While it may lead to a slew of penalties, fines and maybe even some suspensions, the real question is much deeper.

Can anybody really fix the problem?

More NFL.com reaction to the new crown rule:

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