Everyone seems to hate NFL's new helmet hitting rule – and the knee-jerk reactions are wrong

Eric AdelsonColumnist

For many years, the NFL has faced righteous indignation for failing to do enough to respond to the risks of brain injury. Last week, the NFL took a strong step in the hopes of reducing head trauma, and the result was … more indignation.

The new tackle rule, which the league says will be clarified in meetings next month, reads as such: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Penalty: Loss of 15 yards. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down. The player may be disqualified.”

Much of the response has been less than positive. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman called the rule “ridiculous.” Washington Redskins corner Josh Norman wondered how defenders are supposed to play.

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Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins delivers a hit to New England wide receiver Brandin Cooks in February’s Super Bowl. (AP)
Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins delivers a hit to New England wide receiver Brandin Cooks in February’s Super Bowl. (AP)

But from the lowest levels of the game, players are supposed to be taught heads-up tackling. Failure to legislate that forcefully at the top level of the sport is dangerous to both the tackler and the target. And it’s not just about preventing concussions and subconcussive hits; we all know how a lowered helmet can lead to a catastrophic spinal injury. It has happened too often.

Some of the outrage about the proposed change is understandable: how will this be regulated fairly? Tacklers already get penalized for hitting defenseless receivers. They already get unfairly flagged at times for the inability to change direction at the last split-second when a receiver crouches or shifts to withstand a blow. Now this. Detractors say we’re well on the slippery slope to a sport without hitting.

Yet the fears of the rule implementation are likely overblown. Does anyone really think Tom Brady is going to be ejected from a game for lowering his head and running into the pile on a quarterback sneak? Sure, this can technically be called foul on any play, but holding can be flagged on any snap. The league wants to keep its players on the field – sometimes at the expense of player safety – so it’s unlikely there will be a sudden rash of ejections.

Will it be a smooth implementation? No. There will be reckless hits that get missed, and borderline hits that get called. Targeting in college football is inconsistent to put it kindly. However, it was not smooth when the defenseless receiver rule came into play, and that is still a regulation worth enforcing. After several seasons, it has become clear that defenders are calibrating their hits better, and the game is better off for it. There is no way to know how many brain injuries have been averted from this rule. Maybe it’s only a few. Maybe it’s many. But it’s probably more than zero.

“We [the NFL] don’t sing the song enough in my opinion of the quality things we’ve done to improve the health and safety of our players,” Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week at the owners meetings, before the new rule was announced. “It seems like we have a bunker mentality on the subject. I don’t believe we should. I don’t think we need to. We have been aggressive in improving in those areas. We should state it as such.”

The truth is that a lot of people don’t want to give the NFL credit for anything safety-related. Past sins have allowed many to cast the NFL as the Big Tobacco of our era, always putting dollars before health. Certainly there are steps the NFL isn’t taking to make the game safer, most notably cutting preseason games. Even lopping off one exhibition game of four would reduce concussions. Then there’s Thursday night football, which could be banished with hardly a squawk from fans or players.

Still, this new rule is more than lip service. That deserves acknowledgement.

There was also a little-heralded note of emphasis last week that officials will place the ball at the spot where a runner (usually a quarterback) gives himself up on a play. This will actually help defenders, who are trying to avoid hitting a sliding quarterback. Spotting the ball after the completion of a slide gives the quarterback a few free yards to tumble to a stop. It’s not fair to a tackler, who is forced to make another difficult decision at top speed. This way, a defender can start to slow himself a split-second sooner if a quarterback begins to slide. (It also prevents quarterbacks from faking a slide and then darting ahead for more yards.)

There are those who will say the new tackling rule will cause more knee injuries, as defenders will go still lower to make a hit. The head vs. knees dilemma is one that isn’t new and isn’t ever going away. But most would agree the head (and the spine) is more vital to a player’s long-term health. And if the goal is to improve youth football by holding the pros to a better tackling standard, heads-up tackling is vital.

“As a parent, as someone whose children play football, I’m comfortable with where the game is,” Tomlin said. “Can we do more? Certainly. We will continue to do more. But it’s not a negative in my eyes.”

There will always be those who argue football is unsafe for the brain no matter what rules are made. It’s a collision sport, after all. But after a long period when the league denied or ignored risks, the effort to lessen those risks is important. The new rule won’t be perfect or popular, but let’s face it: the number one threat to the future of the league isn’t too many flags; it’s too many brain injuries.

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