The NFL has a helmet problem.
The league sees the helmet as the answer to their biggest problem: long-term player health. The league has invested millions in helmet technology and research, hoping the vital piece of equipment can greatly reduce the risk of debilitating concussions.
Manufacturers are changing everything: paddings, shell materials and shapes. Unfortunately, many NFL players see the helmet has something else: a weapon.
Today's NFL players grew up in a football culture that glorified violent helmet-to-helmet hits. For that matter, so did today's coaches, executives, fans and officials.
In just a few years, fans have changed from shouting "JACKED UP!" along with ESPN's Monday Night Countdown crew to recoiling in horror while Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie twitches on the field.
The NFL has tried to crack down on vicious helmet-to-helmet collisions, but the results have been inconsistent at best. Some blatant attempts to injure are going unpunished, and some incidental contact is getting flagged into oblivion.
It's going to take a culture change from everyone involved in the game before these hits can be correctly policed.
What the NFL Is Trying To Eliminate
Here's the kind of hit the NFL is trying to get rid of. Watch Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays' vicious blowup of Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub:
There's no doubt about intent or execution here. Mays lowered his head:
...left his feet:
...and drove his helmet through Schaub's. Schaub's helmet, and a piece of Schaub's ear, came off. For this, Mays was rightfully suspended one game and fined $50,000.
What the NFL Is Missing
But the officials aren't catching all of these dangerous hits. Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was trucked by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, knocked unconscious, carted off the field and carried by ambulance to the hospital for a neck injury.
Mundy clearly led with his helmet:
...left his feet:
...and snapped Heyward-Bey's head back with the impact:
Heyward-Bey hit the ground, bounced limply and came to rest in the back of the end zone, unmoving:
Somehow, the officials failed to notice.
What About Legal Hits?
Here's a hit that isn't helmet-to-helmet, is perfectly legal by the current rules and wasn't penalized or fined. However, it's a perfect example of the kind of play that's inherently dangerous and needs to be coached and/or penalized out of the game.
Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice had the ball and was racing towards the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. At the goal line, Chicago Bears safety Major Wright lowers his head:
...and delivers a crushing blow to Rice's head and neck:
From the end-zone camera, we can see Wright clearly chose to stand his ground and lower his head, rather than meet Rice with his chest:
From the field angle, we can see Rice protected himself (and the ball) by turning away from the impact. The side of Rice's head met Wright's shoulder, which is legal. According to The Seattle Times' Danny O'Neil, Rice swore he wasn't concussed and that he only stayed on the turf at the advice of teammates and trainers.
The NFL is trying to change the culture of the players by creating and enforcing these rules about tackling technique. It's a great first step, but it's far from perfect. Concussions don't just come from helmet-to-helmet headhunting.
Legal plays, like Wright's hit, or the countless times per week a running back lowers his head as he drives through the pile, are just as dangerous.
According to Bill Williamson of ESPN, Mays said the violence of hit on Schaub was partially due to Schaub "ducking" into the hit. Rice smartly saved his own bacon by ducking away from Wright's hit. But this can't be about the actions of the hittee; the NFL has to try and teach players not to attempt these kinds of hits.
Unfortunately, this attempt at culture change is also penalizing defensive players for completely innocuous behavior. Ever since the NFL outlawed any kind of contact to a quarterback's head, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been doing a "flag throw" gesture to referees whenever he feels such contact.
He gets that call more often than he should.
It's never going to be perfect, not as long as human beings are playing tackle football for money and human beings are officiating. But the NFL has to take a long look at the rules it currently has on the books, do a smarter, more consistent job of enforcing them and spend more effort teaching and coaching than suspending and fining.