On Wednesday, March 19th, the NFL Rules Committee made several significant rules changes.
Most were universally lauded as improving the game. The elimination of the tuck rule, allowing the officials to review a play when a coach’s challenge is overruled and penalizing peel-back blocks near the line of scrimmage were all considered worthwhile developments.
But one elicited an entirely different set of reactions. No longer will a player who is downfield three yards or more be allowed to deliver a blow with the top or “crown” of the helmet. Depending on who is speaking, this was either long overdue or the sky is falling.
Those who argue for its adoption called upon one of the oldest coaching maxims. John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, put it this way:
Anybody that has played the game knows that when you're going in on a higher hit you tackle with your eyes up, you see what you hit.
In other words, keep your head up when making contact. This advice has been ignored by numerous running backs over the decades. One of the most famous instances is the tattoo Earl Campbell put on the sternum of Isaiah Robertson in 1978.
Now, this sort of blow will be rewarded with a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. And the Twitterverse exploded with fear that this once mighty game just had the testosterone legislated right out of it.
The intent of this rule is to remove another means by which players can scramble their brains. With 4,127 player-plaintiffs in the 214 concussion-related lawsuits, the NFL has every reason to appear proactive in dealing with this mounting crisis. Even if Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay insists this litigation had nothing to do with the passage of this rule.
An article by Lee H. Igel on Forbes.com spelled out the long-term risk to the pipeline of talent that feeds America’s most popular sport.
What’s worse is that if these sports don’t get the head and brain out of the game, they will eventually join boxing as a sport played only by the poor.
It could be argued what killed boxing was not the threat of dementia pugilistica but the sustained growth of the post-WWII economy. But with Paulie Malignaggi as the only non-Hispanic American of European heritage to currently hold a world boxing title, Mr. Igel may have a point.
Don Banks of SI.com tried to calm the masses with his take, titled “Outrage over new helmet rule much ado about nothing”:
As with most of the league's player safety initiatives, there's an initial wave of fury and fearful predictions that the game has finally been rendered a shell of its once glorious self. The flag football references always start to fly.
But in time, perspective always returns and the game goes on, with modification, but not ruination.
The reality is football has always evolved. Otherwise the flying wedge would still be legal, the entire playbook could be written on two sheets of wide-ruled paper, and the players would be wearing leather helmets running through the mud on rain-soaked fields.
I have to admit I miss the mud.