It's the 2018 season, December in Carolina, and the Panthers are in the postseason hunt. They are playing the division-leading Saints, and quarterback Cam Newton is scrambling.
He rushes for 20 yards, and at the end of the play, he—as thousands of runners have done before him throughout the history of football—lowers his head to protect himself as one of the Saints defensive backs makes the tackle.
A flag is thrown.
"Unnecessary roughness," announces the official.
Newton is being penalized for lowering his helmet. That wasn't a penalty back in the 2017 season, but here in the future, it's one that's called all the time, changing the complexion of the sport the way the forward pass once did.
Replays show that it was done in a non-aggressive way and that he lowered it only a few inches. But still the Panthers are flagged 15 yards, knocked out of field-goal range and forced to punt. The Saints go on to win not just the game, but the division, and that play is seen as one of the season's key moments.
This isn't science fiction. This is a real possibility of where the NFL's headed.
The new helmet rule, announced earlier this year, continues to cause headaches—even though there are currently no games being played and this is the NFL's dead season. Deadspin and Pro Football Talk both did pieces examining the new rule this week, but it actually isn't getting enough attention from football fans this offseason. Except for nerds like me.
That's because the rule will force the NFL to face a level of uncertainty it hasn't seen in decades.
No one can say what NFL football will look like next season. Not the players. Not the coaches. Not the league. Not the media. No one.
In speaking to players and assistant coaches this week, there's extreme confusion about the rule. Several coaches said they still don't know exactly how it will be officiated. Two players said the same.
But it's not just the fact that they don't understand it that makes it a big deal. It's how much of an impact the rule could have. It's not an exaggeration to say this is potentially one of the biggest rule changes in the history of the sport. The same league that has spent years trying to figure out what a catch is will now police helmet location in a sport that moves ridiculously fast.
The NFL will say there is no confusion and this is all a media creation. It's not. There are teams genuinely in the dark about how this rule will be officiated.
The problem is the league itself doesn't seem certain about the rule.
As Deadspin pointed out, the NFL's release indicated the rule won't actually appear on its own in the rulebook, but would instead be "classified as unnecessary roughness." The language for that violation was changed from "using any part of a player's helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily" to "using any part of a player's helmet to butt, spear, or ram an opponent." In other words, the NFL removed the words "violently or unnecessarily."
But after PFT inquired about the weirdness of that and asked why such a huge change was buried in the rulebook, the NFL made things even worse, saying the rule was now Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8, and will read: "Use of the Helmet. It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent."
I'm not sure people understand the magnitude of the problem this creates.
Under this language, there could be a penalty on literally every single play.
That's not hyperbole.
Coaches and players also point out that a problem here is that the rule is almost impossible to teach.
Let's go to several other scenarios. A receiver catches the ball across the middle, sees a defender coming to tackle him and slightly lowers his head in anticipation of the hit. That could potentially be a penalty.
A defender, in the process of making a tackle, lowers his head, not aggressively or too low but in a normal football move. That could be a penalty, too. On and on it goes.
The end result is a league that is much less physical. The NFL could look more like the CFL, with far more scoring and less defense.
Players would fear getting a 15-yard penalty, so tackling would suffer, too.
And really, maybe that's what the NFL is trying to accomplish. The league continues to try to make the game less physical and thus, in a superficial way, look like it's attempting to solve the problem of head trauma in the sport.
It knows horrible news, like the deeply terrifying story of Tyler Hilinski, likely won't go away. He was 21 years old when he died, and his mind was so clogged with CTE that researchers said he had the brain "of a much older, elderly man." A study from July 2017 showed that 110 of 111 deceased NFL players had CTE.
I'm sure football lovers feel the same way I do. I deeply love and care about football, but I also have to acknowledge the high probability that the sport is wrecking the minds of people who play it.
The NFL knows many people feel this way, and they use these rule changes to appease that guilt of loving football while watching the effects of it on real human beings.
So you toss in some new legislation that appears to make the sport safer but only muddles the actual play on the field.
Turns the game we love into a game we can't recognize.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.