Most NFL analysts and every defensive football player on the planet will tell you that rule changes of late typically benefit the offense. Defensive backs can’t be as physical with wide receivers as in years past, and referees protect quarterbacks with Secret Service diligence.
But the NFL tossed a monkey wrench into the system by placing restrictions on ball-carriers who initiate forcible contact with the crown of their helmet on defensive players.
Inside the tackle box, everything remains the same. A player running with the football can lower his head like a battering ram and plow forward with reckless abandon. But once that ball-carrier gets outside the tackle box, he can no longer lower his head and hit a defensive player with the crown of his helmet.
Running backs across the league were instantly outraged.
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte took to Twitter shortly after the rule change was announced:
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Justin Forsett chose a tongue-in-cheek statement on Twitter to show his displeasure:
Competition committee chairman Rich McKay explained the new rule at the 2013 Annual League Meeting press conference:
There are two elements to it. Both players have to clearly be out of the tackle box. It applies to a runner or a tackler. It applies when that runner or tackler ducks his head and delivers a forcible blow with the top or crown of his helmet.
Even though the new rule seems straightforward, there are some gray-area matters that will need to be cleaned up.
St. Louis Rams head coach and competition committee member Jeff Fisher did a good job of explaining that the crown of the helmet was just the top and did not include the facemask, the side or the hairline. But the league left too much wiggle room in the determination of a penalty by officials under the new rule.
Incidental contact will not be flagged on usage of the crown of the helmet, but what’s incidental? Many players voiced negative opinions about this confusion. Will officials stick to only calling serious offenses of the new crown-of-the-helmet rule, or will they start to err on the side of caution and toss flags frequently?
The NFL office and its officiating department looked at every play from Week 10 and Week 16 and found 11 infractions—an almost equal number from offensive players and defensive players—that would have been called by the new rule. By law of averages, that’s 88 penalties that would be called each year for breaking the crown-of-the-helmet rule.
In addition to reducing the chance of injury and lowering the chances of legal liability to the league, installing the crown-of-the-helmet rule will bring about more penalties. Maybe there will be 88 new penalty flags in 2013, maybe fewer with the way coaching staffs will have to train players to run and tackle. But there will definitely be more officiating moments in games for the near future.
All the side effects of the new crown-of-the-helmet rule might not be solely officiating-related. Scoring might be affected too.
The first impression is to say scoring will drop a bit because ball-carriers will be timid in trying to gain those few extra yards at the end of the play. While that’s not an inaccurate statement, I believe scoring might actually be enhanced in the long run once everyone gets comfortable with the new rule.
While players around the league scoff at the new rule as stealing the running backs’ mojo, has anyone thought about what happens when a running back keeps his head up and his eyes scanning the field? Yes, there may be times when the running back pays the price. But there will eventually be more explosive plays.
A side effect of a running back keeping his head up is the ability to see oncoming defenders and the lanes of escape to all sides. What if instead of the running back lowering his head and eyes to absorb a crushing hit, he keeps his head up and evades the would-be tackler?
Could this be a situation where running backs see the field better and actually benefit from proper form?
Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith would definitely disagree with my assessment, as he told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas that it was close to impossible for a running back to avoid lowering his head.
"If I’m a running back and I’m running into a linebacker, you’re telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off?" Smith said. "You’ve absolutely lost your mind."
"As a running back, it’s almost impossible (to not lower your head)," said the former running back. "The first thing you do is get behind your shoulder pads. That means you’re leaning forward and the first part of contact that’s going to take place is your head, regardless."
A good portion of those bruising impacts with linebackers will be inside the tackle box, where it’s still legal to lower your head and use the crown of your helmet. I’m still convinced that once proper training is instilled and runners learn to run in the open field (read: outside the tackle box) and keep their head up, good things, offensively, might happen.
We know a running back won't slide; this isn’t a situation where they will turn into quarterbacks. We also know the speed of the game won't slow down one bit. So that leaves three choices.
Running backs can all start running out of bounds, which typically doesn’t endear ball-carriers to the coaching staff and fans. Or the ball-carrier can continue to lower his head and hit with the crown of his helmet, welcoming the 15-yard penalty and also not endearing himself to his coaching staff.
The final option is to adapt. When NFL coaches put their minds to overcoming an obstacle, it doesn’t take long to find an answer. How long will it take running backs to be coached up to overcome this crown-of-the-helmet rule?
For the better ball-carriers, it won’t take long at all.