Helmet Rule Will Change the NFL, But Only If the League Can Figure It Out

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 30, 2018

Brandin Cooks (14) of the Patriots is tackled by Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles during Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on February 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
B/R

Let's start with something many of us can agree on: Malcolm Jenkins walloped Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl.

It's a famous hit, and a vicious one. No flag was thrown, but the tens of millions of fans who saw it wouldn't have been surprised if there was one. It was a borderline play, the kind that should serve as a benchmark as the NFL implements its new use-of-the-helmet policy.

Under the new rules, which are meant to completely eliminate crown-of-helmet contact, the famous Jenkins-Cooks collision would appear to be a good template for an unnecessary roughness penalty.

Um, maybe not.

"It's 50-50 based on which referee you ask," Jenkins told B/R, just hours after an Eagles team meeting with referees early in training camp. "Some think it's a foul, some don't."

Jenkins is just speaking figuratively when he says "50-50," right?

"We put the Malcolm play up [on a video screen] on our own," Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. "One ref said it was illegal, and one ref said legal."

Oh, Jenkins was being literal.

Unsurprisingly, the new helmet policy soon began causing preseason chaos across the league: incomprehensible flags, complaints from players and coaches and mixed messages from the league about on-the-fly tweaks or adjustments to a rule. As the season approaches, the new rule threatens to decide games and result in fines, ejections and suspensions for collisions that were previously considered routine, or even textbook examples of proper technique.

Underlying the confusion and mayhem is a faulty communication system between the league, officials, coaches and players; a lack of coordination between the NFL and those trying to teach safe tackling; and a simple fact that all wishful thinking about taking the head completely out of the game cannot change.

Malcolm Jenkins said he does not know whether his hit on Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl would be called a penalty under the new use-of-helmet rule.
Malcolm Jenkins said he does not know whether his hit on Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl would be called a penalty under the new use-of-helmet rule.TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

"Physically, some of the things they want are kind of impossible to do," Jenkins said.

       

Missiles versus thuds

At the start of camp, everyone said all the right things.

"How I'm taking it, they're just trying to protect us from the missile-type hits," Giants linebacker Kareem Martin said in early August. "From a player-safety standpoint, that's safer for everybody, from the player getting hit to the player delivering the hit."

Robinson's thoughts echoed from camp to camp: Safety is good. Helmet collisions are bad. Rules are rules.

"I only know how to play football one way, and that's the way I'm going to continue to play," longtime Ravens defender Terrell Suggs said. "I'll deal with everything else as it comes."

"It's a game where you have to learn and adjust on the fly," Steelers safety Morgan Burnett said. "These guys are professionals. Whatever rules they make, we'll be able to adjust."

On and on, the words of peaceful transition flowed. Who wants to speak out against player safety, even if the new policy sounded like "overkill," in Jenkins' words?

Then the preseason games began and the flags flew abundantly and nigh-randomly. Officials called 51 use-of-helmet penalties in the first two weeks of the preseason, according to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, a rate that extrapolates to 396 new penalties this season. A grand majority of those calls were on defensive players, many of them for routine-looking, not-too-intense tackles.

Suddenly, criticism of the rule became more public and less guarded.

Other players stated their objections with a bit more diplomacy.

For example, the use-of-helmet rule doesn't address plays along the sideline, where defenders often get low to knock a ball-carrier out of bounds.

"A lot of times you don't go for the wrap tackle, you just go for the thud," Martin said. "I think that will be a little bit tougher."

The new policy also doesn't account for routine tackles in which both players are trying to get as low as possible to win a leverage battle.

"It's really hard to get low and not have your head pointed down," Jenkins said.

What about running backs using their helmets as battering rams? Or offensive linemen lowering their heads to pancake defenders?

"I'm 230 pounds and they're, like, 330," Bradham said. "I gotta protect myself."

And what about Sherman's "rugby tackle" explanation? Isn't rugby tackling the good, safe type of tackling?

The NFL has tried for months to get the answers out. The effort has not gone smoothly.

           

Antennae up

The NFL's helmet-rule-clarification roadshow arrived in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to meet with the Giants in early August, only days after meeting the Eagles and failing to clear up the Jenkins-Cooks Super Bowl play or much of anything else.

Before an evening meeting with players and coaches, longtime NFL referee Jerome Boger and two members of his crew met with the media in a conference room at Giants headquarters.

The referees played a video narrated by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who explained the targeting rule and other rulesthe revised catch terminology, new kickoff regulationswhile game clips illustrated his points and on-hold-with-the-cable-company music played in the background.

Boger then fielded questions, of which there were many, because even some of the illustrative clips appeared to contradict the language of the new rules.

"There are certain attributes that will jump out to us as officials that we will look for," Boger explained. "One is lowering the head, that 'linear position.' We want people to see what they tackle.

"When officials see that head go down, our antennae are going to go up to see where we are going with this."

Boger further clarified that once the head is in that linear position, the player can still draw a foul even if he makes contact with an opponent's shoulder or torso.

But the linear position doesn't guarantee a foul, according to Boger.

"He has his head down, and he can go left or right but chooses to go into the body of an opponent," Boger said. "That's where there's going to be a problem."

It was easy to walk out of that media training session and feel enlightened. Head down? Impact with the opponent's body? Probable flag! All defenders (and offensive players looking to deliver a blow) have to do is keep their heads up and all will be fine.

Then the Hall of Fame Game took place that same night, and all enlightenment went out the window. Defenders who appeared to have their heads up were flagged. Defenders whose heads were down who appeared to be veering away from their opponents were flagged.

Martin caught a little of the Hall of Fame Game after meeting with Boger's crew. "I saw a couple of hits that were penalties because of the rules we talked about. It seems a little tough for the defense.

"They tried to give us a little clarity on it. But it's all a gray area, for the most part."

Boger said officials are encountering confusion and resistance because the new tackling rules represent "a change in the way they have probably been coached up until now."

Does that mean that the NFL is using this rule to change the way players are taught how to tackle?

"We are," Boger said. "And I feel as though they can do it."

"This is just an effort to get that tackling posture, with the head bent down, out of the game," Boger added. "They want to eradicate it."

Eliminating dangerous tackles is a laudable goal, of course. But if players don't understand the rule, it will be hard for them to change. The task hasn't been made any easier by scheduling the clarification tour in the middle of training camp, which isn't exactly the best time to introduce fundamental changes to the mechanics of making a tackle.

And then there's that pesky Sherman question: What if the NFL, through miscommunication or a simple disconnect between its competition and the rest of the football world, is accidentally penalizing the safest way to tackle?

        

Getting the head across

Every NFL player has been taught to "see what they hit" since the moment they strapped on a helmet. It's a coaching point that dates back to the days when broken necks, not concussions or then-unheard-of CTE, were football's biggest safety concern.

"I don't think any coach has said anything like 'get your facemask on his numbers' for a long, long time," said Todd Berry, longtime college coach and current executive director of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA).

See-what-you-hit was tackling's top safety protocol until rugby tackling, also known as "Hawk" or shoulder-leverage tackling, came into vogue circa 2014. That's when the Seahawks fielded a Super Bowl-caliber team and head coach Pete Carroll released a teaching tape of the new tackling technique that emphasized concepts like "eyes through the thighs," leading with the near shoulder and positioning your head behind the ball-carrier instead of in front of him.

Pete Carroll's effort to teach rugby-style tackling has caught on not only with his Seahawks, but with defensive players across the NFL.
Pete Carroll's effort to teach rugby-style tackling has caught on not only with his Seahawks, but with defensive players across the NFL.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Jenkins was an established vet by the time the Carroll video made the rounds, and his coaches didn't immediately make the switch. So he picked it up on his own.

He remembers when he decided to make the switch: "When I first had to tackle LeGarrette Blount," he said with a grin. "I figured putting my head in front of him wasn't a good idea." He also noted it was more efficient and didn't hurt as much.

The Eagles now teach some version of rugby tackling.

"That's something I've embraced the last couple of years," Eagles linebacker coach Ken Flajole said. "So, hopefully there isn't going to be a big retool at my position about how we teach tackling [because of the new rule]."

Soon, NFL coaches won't have to teach rugby tackling at all. Incoming players will have learned it from the lowest levels.

All 23,000 Pop Warner coaches now take an annual certification course in safe tackling techniques, according to Pop Warner executive director Jon Butler. Every high school coach in Texas attends tackle training courses through Atavus, a company that teaches techniques similar to those the Seahawks used. The AFCA provides shoulder-tackling resources to programs at all levels nationwide, and Berry believes most colleges now teach some variation on rugby tackling.

Before anyone assumes rugby tackling will rise up from the grass roots just in time to save football and eliminate all of our worries about this new use-of-helmet policy, there are a few twists to navigate.

First, it's hard to tell which coaches have embraced rugby tackling and which pay lip service to it while doing whatever they like. NFL defenders often still use phrases like "get your head across" when describing a proper form tackle. That's the traditional pre-rugby language, a sign that many NFL coaches have not made the shift.

Besides, teaching the Seahawks-style tackling technique isn't as easy as watching it on a screen.

"One of the difficulties of that kind of tackle is that you almost have to practice it live," Berry said. "Well, that's not healthy either."

Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree agrees. "It's definitely difficult to practice not putting your head in front of something when you are not hitting anything, you aren't live tackling."

Manufacturers now sell a variety of devices to help teach rugby tackling, from expensive robots to rolling padded rings. Travel from NFL camp to NFL camp, and you will see some teams tackling gizmos and others doing things in a more old-fashioned way. In theory, the use-of-helmet policy could scare hidebound coaches into adopting better tackling techniques to avoid penalties and ejections.

But the thorniest problem is the one Sherman raised about a proper rugby tackle.

Remember "eyes on the thighs?" Rugby tacklers are trained to aim for low strike points, like the ball-carrier's thigh, near-hip or belly button. Watch the Carroll video, and you will see tackler after tackler assume the dreaded "linear position" that NFL officials will be looking for when they throw flags.

Atavus vice president of football operations Kerry Carter stressed the Atavus method does not instruct players to dip their heads.

"As much as your eyes are on that hip and you are going downward, you're still looking to maintain proper body position," Carter says. "So you're bending at the knees so the crown of your helmet is going down."

Other experts in youth tackling agree. The helmet is never supposed to be down. Just low and away, without being down. It's roughly the same language Boger used, but an awful lot is getting lost in translation.

The use-of-helmet policy doesn't contradict the best practices of rugby tackling, but there are clear compatibility issues in the terminology and emphasis. Tackling experts don't use the phrase "linear position" much. Furthermore, the policy doesn't reflect the fact that tens of thousands of football players are being taught to strike low and position their head behind the runner, meaning that helmets will sometimes swing into positions that may look unusual to officials.

So, youth coaching experts are stressing one thing, NFL referees are emphasizing something only tangentially similar and NFL coaches seem to be picking and choosing the parts they like best.

And everything is getting done catch-as-catch-can as the hours count down until kickoff.

           

Upon further and further review

Flajole and the Eagles have been trying to understand the new guidelines since March, when the league's competition committee adopted them. Back then, the team had an initial clarification meeting with league officials in a way that would soon become a familiar refrain.

"Our football video guy put up about 12 clips," Flajole said. "The first one comes up, and we ask, 'How would you call that?' The first guy says, 'Oh, that's a flag.' The other guy says, 'I wouldn't have called that!'"

That was spring. By the start of training camp, officials were still contradicting each other to players about Super Bowl plays.

In August, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron tried to clear things up by releasing a Twitter video illustrating the new use-of-helmet rules. Technically, he released two videos. The first confused even well-informed NFL observers, who couldn't spot the helmet-to-helmet fouls with any certainty. The second highlighted the hits that were now considered 15-yard penalties. Eventually, he released a third video that included explanations of fouls and a link to a longer fourth video.

No wonder everyone is still confused.

In late August, the league held a conference call to once again try to make some sense of its own rule. Even its formal announcement that it would not make changes included a minor change (or at least a change in emphasis), with Vincent pointing out that "incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul."

Confusion may be baked into the entire articulation process. Since the spring, coaches like Flajole have sent clips to league headquarters for clarification. Boger said Riveron and his officiating department adjudicates them and then decides whether they should be included on training tapes for all NFL officials.

During the season, weekly officiating tapes are distributed to coaches, usually arriving late in the week. Players presumably get their information from coaches, who got it from league headquarters, which sent similar information to officials.

It's a complex process with obvious potential for long delays and garbled messages. That's before you layer Twitter videos and conference calls on top of it.

The information that does reach coaches is muddled. The league distributed "teach tapes" to teams, narrated by head coaches. Watch the defensive back tape and count how many times Todd Bowles says "head up" on a legal tackle where the head is clearly in the "linear position," or close to it. Some defensive line coaches weren't even clear that the new policy applied to line-of-scrimmage collisions when camp started. Boger's touring company and Riveron's video emphasized that it does.

Every sketchy preseason flag raised a new set of questions. Each trickle of "clarification" from the league cast doubt on the last set of explanations. Coaches were flying blind when the use-of-helmet rule was enacted in the spring, weren't sure what to tell their players days and weeks into camp (other than "see what you hit") and were still proverbially chasing a moving target as training camps ended.

It all circles back to a rule that straddles the line between the impossible and the idiotic, because it requires football players to do two almost contradictory things simultaneously.

"The instructions we've given guys is try not to lower your head and try to take your head out of it," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "And I think our guys are trying to do that. The other thing we say is you want to lower your target, but along with lowering the target and trying to stay away from the head, sometimes that causes you to dip your head."

        

Helmet tackles are history

Butler, the Pop Warner executive director, dates the rise of the rugby-tinged tackling techniques youth coaches are now trained in back to the days when equipment was primitive and teams sometimes played two games in one weekend. Back then, self-preservation was the goal for exhausted, poorly padded players.

"If you go back to the leather-helmet days, the last thing anyone wanted to do was stick their head or face into anybody," Butler said.

What constituted a legal tackle in Hall of Famer Robert Brazile's time in the NFL likely would get penalized in the NFL today.
What constituted a legal tackle in Hall of Famer Robert Brazile's time in the NFL likely would get penalized in the NFL today.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

By the 1960s, plastic helmets and facemasks became potential weapons, and many coaches taught players the facemask-on-the-numbers tactic. That led to what many of us think of as old-school football: the violent, reckless collisions that defined the NFL in the 1970s. It also led to an incalculable number of concussions, and almost certainly to many future health problems.

"When I was growing up, football was run, block and tackle," Hall of Fame linebacker Robert Brazile said before his induction. "And a whole lotta tackling."

But what Brazile and his generation considered "tackling" would get players fined or ejected today, and players from that era are suffering the consequences.

"If you want to become a great football player in the future, you gotta be coachable," Brazile said. "If they tell you not to use your head, please do not use your head. Use those big hands you've got. Use the big arms you've got. I can teach you a thousand ways to make a tackle other than using your head."

Jenkins said that early in his career, safeties were still taught to "punish" receivers across the middle, an intimidation tactic to make up for all of the disadvantages defenders face in pass coverage. Players are no longer coached that way, and not only is the game safer, but the product on the field is better.

"It's made us develop our skill sets more as defenders," Jenkins said. "We have to be able to move. We have to be able to cover."

A generation of lifelong rugby tacklers will soon reach the NFL, and if all goes as planned, the league's emphasis on eliminating helmet collisions should trickle down to lower competition levels and hasten that generation's arrival. It will make the game safer, and it may also make it better.

"I hope that what comes out of this is that people just become much more aware and start to coach in a way that lessens the focus on this as time goes on," Carter said. "Hopefully, one day it becomes a non-issue."

Until then, NFL fans are stuck with a poorly written, poorly communicated rule that was implemented too quickly, articulated too haphazardly and isn't the logical extension of initiatives like rugby tackling that it should be.

It would all be easier to swallow if we just knew for certain whether Jenkins' hit on Cooks in the Super Bowl was a use-of-helmet penalty or not. The next time a safety has a receiver in his sights in the middle of the field, will he reactive instinctively or worry about things like the "linear position?"

"I'm gonna make that play 10 times out of 10," Jenkins said. "A flag is a flag."

                 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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