While the league tried to take dangerous tackling techniques out of the game with penalties, fines and suspensions, defenders cried foul. Offensive players could still use their head like a battering ram, so banning "helmet-to-helmet hits" made it feel like open season on open-field tacklers.
With all the concern about head trauma in the NFL, it only makes sense to prevent offensive players' willingness to lead with their heads and reduce dangerous collisions with defenders.
The problem is, this rule doesn't prevent anything.
The new helmet rule is just another situational carve-out that relies on referees' snap judgments, can't be reviewed and levies a huge on-field penalty. It makes the NFL's biggest problem even worse and will lead to even more upset players and fans in the seasons to come.
Major Gray Area with "Forcible Contact"
The new rule makes it a 15-yard spot foul if the ball-carrier "initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the crown (top) of his helmet" (via the Los Angeles Times), while the carrier and defenders are both outside the tackle box.
It's right there in the second word: "forcible." In a league where this clear touchdown catch was lawyered into an incomplete pass, how will "forcible" be interpreted consistently by different officials, let alone different officiating crews?
Consistently determining which collisions between 200-pound players are "forcible" and which are not will be practically impossible.
In a situation where different people at different angles might see the same hit as helmet-to-helmet, helmet-to-shoulder or shoulder-to-shoulder, what's the difference between a running back lowering his head in anticipation of a hit, and lowering his head in anticipation of a hit?
Making the League's Biggest Problem Even Worse
The NFL's biggest problem right now is a perception that the game isn't being refereed fairly.
The massive NFL rule book has been lawyered into oblivion, with so many addendums, clauses, accepted rulings and interpretations involved that referees have an almost-impossible task.
Fans and media see what seem like plain and obvious calls negated "by rule" and wonder what's happening to the game they love. Wildly inconsistent enforcement of the existing helmet-to-helmet rules and holding penalties make decisions seem arbitrary—or worse, malicious.
With the heavy influence of gambling on the NFL, and the unilateral, punitive style of Commissioner Roger Goodell, fans see apparently nonsensical calls go against them and feel like something sinister is afoot.
How do we know refereeing gaffes like the Fail Mary weren't the product of refs on the take? The NFL has closed the "Jim Schwartz Rule" loophole that cost the Lions a win last Thanksgiving, but Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, per the word of a referee, was lucky enough to escape the same fate.
If Goodell would shackle the New Orleans Saints—possibly the NFL's best feel-good story—with unprecedented penalties on a whim, and with flimsy evidence, what's stopping him from ensuring his $10 billion reality TV show has the best possible storylines?
To be clear, there's no evidence that officials are affecting games with anything other than their own inconsistency, or that Goodell hands out punishments according to anything other than his own sense of justice.
To be clearer, this rule is exactly the kind of change that the NFL is going to have to make if it wants to survive. There's not much evidence of exactly what kind of hits cause concussions or CTE, but minimizing head trauma at all levels of the game can't hurt.
More changes like this may be on their way, including the elimination of kickoffs, the three-point stance or even line play altogether. As I wrote last June, the ultimate result of these issues could be the NFL becoming a professional seven-on-seven league.
If the choice is between collectively admitting we're alright with watching people kill themselves playing an inherently dangerous, violent game and watching a less-violent game, what will we pick? The NFL is betting its existence on the latter.
If the NFL does become like "basketball on grass," as some have said, that might be OK—lots of people watch basketball.
Whatever changes are being made to football, though, have to be made with clear, bright-line rules that players, coaches, officials, media and fans all understand—and know when they're being broken.