Get ready, fans of tortured franchises — the new helmet rule is going to be a disaster

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

When my phone buzzed on a recent summer day and I saw it was my buddy Ryan, I immediately smirked. A good laugh, I knew, likely awaited.

See, when Ryan — one of my high school buddies from back home — texts me these days, it’s typically with a snarky comment about our hometown Detroit Lions. Like me, he’d long ago left the Metro Detroit area to pursue a professional career, and like me, he still roots for and watches the teams we grew up loving.

Turns out Ryan had just read that Frank Ragnow, the Lions’ first-round pick, had been getting the first-string reps at left guard instead of center, the position he made his bones at in college.

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And my friend was already ticked off.

“[Yeah], the LOLions drafting a center in the first round because he’s potentially one of the best collegiate centers ever and then playing him at a different position leaves me NO cause for alarm,” he texted, sarcastically. “You just play Ragnow at C and get a [expletive] guard. This isn’t hard.”

I cackled out loud, Ed McMahon-style, and not just because Ryan found a way to continue his nine-year streak of calling them the “LOLions.” I understood where he was coming from, and why he was annoyed.

Few fan bases in the NFL know pain quite like Detroit Lions fans. (AP)
Few fan bases in the NFL know pain quite like Detroit Lions fans. (AP)

I’m sure some of you are saying that his texts seem over-the-top, and more than a little negative. But if you’re one of those people, then I’d venture to guess you must root for some team that knows nothing about how miserable it is to spend a lifetime rooting for a perpetually tortured franchise.

My guess is that Browns, Bills, Cardinals, Falcons, Vikings and Chiefs fans probably read Ryan’s text and laughed, because they felt that familiar bitterness, one that comes from the folly of allowing oneself to be tantalized by duos like Joey Harrington and Charles Rogers, or Jon Kitna and Roy Williams. It’s one that originates from the agony of being forced to watch two all-time greats — Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson — retire in their primes because they were tired of the unending mediocrity.

So yeah, at some point, Ryan and I both realized the only way to deal with the Lions’ unceasing ineptitude is to laugh at it. If you’re going to torture yourself by watching every game, it’s easier to assume nothing will go right, so you can be pleasantly surprised the 10 percent of the time it does. But you never let down that protective sarcastic shield. Ever.

Anyway, I say all that to make the following point to all those other fans out there who hate-watch their teams, a warning that I’m issuing from the bottom of my football-loving soul: You better get prepared for at least one more gut-punch loss this season, courtesy of the new lowering-of-the-helmet rule.

You know how Murphy’s law states that what can go wrong, will go wrong? Well, fans of the aforementioned teams already know that this law already has a “Rock Band 4”-ish “5x multiplier” on their squads whenever they’re in a game that matters. This new rule is so horrific, so ill-conceived, that we might all need to get ready for a “10x multiplier” of sorts.

Oh, the NFL is saying all the right things about the new rule, which will penalize both offensive (LOL) and defensive players 15 yards and a possible ejection, fine or suspension for lowering the head to hit an opponent. It’s about the safety of the players, the league says. The future of the game, it says. I’m sure that’s the spirit of the rule.

But this new rule is 100 percent subjective, and thus, impossible to enforce consistently, no matter how much the NFL keeps trying to tell us differently.

We’ve seen an abundance of ridiculous penalties of this sort during the preseason, including two in the Cardinals-Chargers game last week that were so bad that Tim Donaghy would be proud. Even the call on Philadelphia Eagles safety Rodney McLeod Jr. — who was flagged for leading with his head while trying to tackle New England Patriots running back James White on Thursday night — was cringeworthy. Technically, it may have been the right call. But man, if that’s a penalty … let’s not even call this football anymore.

The bottom line is whenever you combine the institution of a new rule that’s ill-conceived and subjective, then task a cast of officials who keeps losing its elite members — Gene Steratore and Ed Hochuli recently retired, by the way — what you get is a disaster in the making, one that is destined to be called against the league’s most perpetually tortured franchises, at the most inopportune times, over the course of the season.

And because I’m a man with a heart — not to mention a man whose 34 years as a Lions fan has given him an advanced degree on football torture — I am determined to help prepare those fans for the pain that looms.

So, for you fans of frustrating franchises out there, here’s when you can expect this Murphy’s law of rule changes to hurt you most this season:

  • Browns fans, you just suffered through an 0-16 season in 2017 — joining my 2008 Lions! — so you know this disaster of a rule is destined to strike your team on the verge of their first win in over a year. My bet is on your Week 3 tilt against the Jets. Get mentally prepared. Things improve after a winless season (but not too much better).

  • To Bills fans, it would be all-too-poetic for this rule to punch you in the gut during the Super Bowl. But you guys know your team is a long way away from that. It will happen sometime during the season.

  • To Chiefs fans, I’m sure this call will go against you in the wild-card game, when your Chiefs, 1-5 in that round since 1994 with three ridiculous losses in the past five years. Same goes to Bengals fans, whose team is 0-7 in playoff games under longtime coach Marvin Lewis.

  • To Vikings fans, my guess is that your gut-punch call will go against you in the NFC championship game, which has been your team’s house of horrors (0-4 since the 1998 season). It would be a shame, too; this is among the Vikings’ most talented teams in years.

  • To Falcons fans, I think you guys are a sneaky-good Super Bowl pick … but be wary. If you guys reach the Super Bowl again, which will conveniently be held in Atlanta, there’s some bad juju out there, especially after you led the Patriots by The Score That Shalt Not Be Repeated. I don’t even want to say when this call might go against you.

And as for my Lions … well, there are a myriad of possibilities for when this rule will come back to bite us. Maybe it will happen in the season opener against the Jets, as “Monday Night Football” is always a nice place for a devastating reminder that you’re a Lions fan. Week 3 against the Patriots, when new coach Matt Patricia tries to defeat his mentor, Bill Belichick, on “Sunday Night Football,” is a tantalizing option, too.

And there’s always the old standby, Thanksgiving, because nothing goes better with a side of turkey than chuckling about another Lions loss at the dinner table, as the Lions are 37-39-2 all time on this holiday (despite winning their past four of five Turkey Day games).

But if the Lions really have a miracle season — if they get really, really lucky — they’ll make the playoffs, where this call will go against them in the wild-card round, where the Lions are 0-8 since 1991.

And now that I think about it, that’s probably the smart bet. Ragnow is back at center, his best position, thanks to a recent training camp injury to Graham Glasgow, and when I was there during my training camp tour, I came away thinking the Lions will — finally — make more than a token effort to run the ball.

I came away from the Lions’ Allen Park facility wanting to believe, wanting to leave the past in the past. That’s the thing about being a fan of a tortured franchise; even with all the self-preserving sarcasm and negativity, you never completely disengage.

That’s why in January, when some ref proceeds to flag running back LeGarrette Blount for lowering his head to convert a crucial third down late in the wild-card game — thus giving Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan or some other quarterback who doesn’t need any help in life enough to mount a comeback that extends misery another year — I’m sure Lions fans all over, like myself and Ryan, will chuckle and laugh.

Then we’ll fire off sarcastic texts to each other, remember that it’s those little moments of shared pain that are, in a way, the best part of being a fan, anyway … and keep it moving.

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