One of the biggest stories of the NFL last preseason was the new helmet rule.
According to Atlanta Falcons president and chairman of the NFL’s competition committee Rich McKay, we can expect to see more enforcement of the rule this season.
What is the helmet rule?
On paper, the league outlawed players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact, a good rule in theory in the interest of player safety.
“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent,” the rule reads.
In practice, the rule was a source of ridicule and largely abandoned by the time the regular season started. McKay told Deadspin that the rule will be enforced this season.
“I think during [the 2018 season] there’s no question that you saw many more fines and warning letters than you did flags,” McKay told Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino. “I think this year you’ll see enforcement increase because I think the officials are more comfortable now [with] what they’re looking for. I think that they’ve been in a position where, at the end of the play, they didn’t necessarily look at that portion of the play—they were looking for the football, they were looking for other things. It’s interesting when you talk to them how they feel more confident now that they understand what they need to look for.”
Rule doomed from the start
The rule caused confusion for players and coaches, drawing pushback before the first preseason game and prompting the NFL to release a fact sheet clarifying what does and does not constitute a legal tackle in regard to using the helmet.
“It’s ridiculous,” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told USA Today last year. “They’ll see how ridiculous it is, once they make the refs call it. It’s going to be worse than holding, worse than the catch rule. On a good form tackle, guys will lead with their shoulder pads, but you bring your head.”
Sherman was prescient.
Implemented during the preseason-opening Hall of Fame game, the rule was an immediate source of uproar with three potentially game-changing flags thrown on what had previously been routine football plays.
The rule carries with it a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down and can lead to player ejection at the officials’ discretion.
Officials continued to flag players for helmet rule violations throughout the preseason, leading to anger and criticism from the very players the rule intends to protect.
So here's a play that my 49ers client Raheem Mostert got an unnecessary roughness penalty on last night for leading with his head... Is this really the way we want to affect the outcome of games this season? pic.twitter.com/lotRzIxiue
— Brett Tessler (@TesslerSports) August 19, 2018
“Make Football Violent Again” was the phrase emblazoned on a hat worn by Minnesota Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo.
— Tanner Peterson (@24tanner) August 3, 2018
NFL tried to clarify
The confusion over what does and does not constitute a helmet-rule violation prompted the NFL to send out a video clarifying the rule.
The video featuring wide-angle shots used for coaching film accompanied with little explanation only created more confusion.
The Use of Helmet rule is designed to protect players from unnecessary risk. It's illegal to lower your head to initiate contact against an opponent. This rule applies to all players & the entire field. The 1st 3 plays are examples of the #NFLWaytoPlay and the last 3 are fouls. pic.twitter.com/HzfR196UIg
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) August 15, 2018
NFL vowed to keep rule in play
After officials threw 55 flags for the penalty in the first 33 preseason games, pressure mounted on the NFL to address the rule.
The competition committee stood firm, and vowed that there would be no change to the rule for the regular season.
“The committee reviewed feedback to date from players, coaches and game officials,” a statement from NFL vice president Troy Vincent read. “The committee resolved that there will be no changes to the rule as approved by clubs this spring, which includes no additional use of instant replay. The committee also determined that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul.”
Rule rarely enforced once the games counted
But once the regular season started, the helmet rule was largely an afterthought. After a rate of 1.5 helmet rule penalties per game through the first two weeks of the preseason, the penalty was called just four times through the first four weeks of the regular season.
It remained a rarity for the remainder of the season. Even though the league never officially addressed a change in the way the penalty was called, officials clearly took a different approach to the rule once the games counted.
Better understanding this season?
McKay told Deadspin that a year for players and officials to digest the rule will lead to a better understanding and more consistent enforcement this season.
“I think the message to our players has likewise had a year to get through,” McKay said. “So I think ... we’re getting a narrower understanding of how this rule was intended to be enforced. I think we’ll be in a much better place than we were last year just because we’re another year into it.”
The Hall of Fame game between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos will kick off the NFL preseason next Thursday. That will be the first gauge on whether the league truly intends to ramp up enforcement of the rule.
But until the league starts penalizing the rule with consistency in the regular season games, enforcement remains a “believe-it-when-we-see-it” situation.
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