Improving player safety has become the NFL’s primary focus in recent years, and while passing measures to continue the evolution toward a safer playing environment is the right move, the league missed the mark on its latest rule change.
According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the league voted in favor a rule that will outlaw contact initiated with the crown of a player’s helmet outside the tackle box:
The crown-of-the-helmet rule has also passed by a wide margin, I'm told.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 20, 2013
As Gregg Rosenthal later reported, that “wide margin” was expansive. Only the Cincinnati Bengals voted in opposition of the proposed rule.
The implementation of the rule will undoubtedly be ironed out when games begin this season, but the idea is simple: No player is allowed to lower his helmet outside the tackle box when making contact with an opposing player—the result of doing so will now be a 15-yard penalty.
The drawbacks of such a rule are numerous and it seems the league chose to turn a blind eye to some of the problems it will cause.
NFL officiating is inherently subjective and rules regarding intent (such as the current helmet-to-helmet contact rule) are, by and large, extremely hard to accurately enforce. Outlawing further contact—especially by offensive players—will only add to the ambiguous nature of such rules.
In addition, questions remain about the overall effectiveness of such a rule.
Leading with one’s helmet is a dangerous act, but the alternative could prove just as damaging, as former NFL running back Marshall Faulk pointed out in Rosenthal’s report: "You run with your chin up, you run with your eyes up, you are going to get hurt.”
There are right ways and wrong ways to address dangerous action on the field. This rule falls under the latter category.
By eliminating the ability for running backs to protect themselves in the open field, the league is opening a veritable Pandora’s box of problems that, by nature, venture into the realm of player safety. If a ball-carrier can’t lower his helmet, he also loses some of the ability to lower his pad level, opening the door for serious injuries to occur to other parts of the body.
Mike Mayock of NFL Network further illustrated that point (per Rosenthal):
While I applaud the league with most of what's going on with the safety concerns ... I look at this rule and say at some point we are crossing the line. To me, a running back has got to be able to drop his pad level. When a running back drops his pad level, his helmet goes with him. I think it's part of the game. I don't think you can legislate all contact and forcible head hits out of this game.
Time will tell if the NFL’s latest venture will be successful, but the logic of the new legislation is puzzling. Expect it to come under fire early and often this season.
Additional Rule Changes
In addition to the new “Helmet-Crown Rule,” the NFL also overturned two controversial rules that have created countless headaches for NFL officials. As Rosenthal reported, the Tuck Rule and the “Jim Schwartz Rule” have been eliminated.
As outlined in Article 2 of the official NFL rulebook, the “Tuck Rule” is defined as:
When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.
The "Tuck Rule" is widely regarded as one of the most baseless rules in the NFL and its removal comes as no surprise. According to Mike Reiss of ESPN, only one team voted in opposition of its removal:
NFL owners vote to eliminate the tuck rule. Per @adamschefter, vote passes 29-1, with New England and Washington abstaining.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) March 20, 2013
Likewise, the “Jim Schwartz Rule” got the axe on Wednesday, as the Washington Post’s Mark Maske breaks down with this tweet:
Owners approved rule to make play reviewable even after coach throws challenge flag on play not subject to challenge (Jim Schwartz rule).— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) March 20, 2013
One of the more absurd rules in the NFL, the "Jim Schwartz Rule" didn’t stand much of a chance of remaining in the rulebook. With accuracy being a primary focus of officiating, a rule that facilitates turning a blind eye to the correct call doesn’t have a place in the NFL.