The NFL's new helmet rule has been called 51 times already this preseason

Two weeks of NFL preseason games are behind us now, which means we can start to really look at how referees have been calling the NFL’s new controversial/confusing helmet rule. The numbers are in, and they’ve called it a lot. What’s “a lot?” Pro Football Talk says it’s been called 51 times so far.

Helmet rule called at least once per game

The NFL’s new helmet rule seems pretty simple at first glance. If a player lowers his head and uses his helmet to initiate contact with any part of an opponent’s body, a 15-yard penalty is assessed. It’s been disastrously confusing, but that hasn’t stopped officials from calling it on the field. The NFL told Pro Football Talk that in preseason games, the penalty has been called 1.5 times a game on average.

The league office told PFT that through 33 preseason games, officials have called 51 fouls for the new rule. That works out to 1.5 penalties per game.

The vast majority of the penalties, 43 in all, have been called on the defense. Only eight have been called on the offense.

That is a LOT of penalties.

Confusing and inconsistent NFL penalties

The biggest issue is that the rule isn’t being applied uniformly by referees. (Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that no one seems to understand it.) For every preseason game, the Twitter feed of every football fan has filled up with videos of confusing and contradictory penalties for the same rule. Keanu Neal of the Atlanta Falcons got 15 yards for tackling his opponent, which involved lowering his shoulders and, well, tackling. But this officiating crew says he lowered his head, so that’s 15 yards!

Here’s another one! Raheem Mostert of the San Francisco 49ers lowered his head to tackle but didn’t appear to really hit anything with his helmet. His head was off to the side, but this officiating crew apparently thinks that a player doesn’t have to actually hit anyone with his helmet to be penalized for it.

And this one’s just baffling.

As Michael Robinson says in that video, “How do you expect him to tackle?” At this point, no one seems to know the answer to that question.

Everyone is confused about the NFL’s new helmet rule, but that hasn’t stopped referees from calling it. (Getty Images)
Everyone is confused about the NFL’s new helmet rule, but that hasn’t stopped referees from calling it. (Getty Images)

Changes on the horizon?

The NFL will reportedly release a new educational video about the helmet rule, one that presumably educates instead of confusing everyone who watches it. But according to the Washington Post, those are the only changes that will be made to the new rule.

According to one person familiar with the league’s inner workings, rulemakers do not expect to change the language of the rule in a significant way nor do they plan to expand the use of instant replay to include all penalties assessed under the rule and not merely those resulting in ejections.

If any changes are made, they apparently would be minor modifications meant to clarify the existing rule.

The NFL’s attempts to clarify the rule thus far have only done the opposite, but maybe this time it’ll be different? Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at or follow her on Twitter at @lizroscher.

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