The NFL’s helmet contact rule was a mess at the start of the preseason and it has a chance to be a mess at the start of the regular season.
But, as with any rule change, in the preseason it’s usually called way over the top and that’s kind of what it has been. A penalty is called and everyone is, “Wait, are we calling this on every play? You can call holding on every play, too.” I think they do it like that to send a message, and I’m hopeful that when the regular season starts it’s going to be something that doesn’t affect too many games.
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Basically, it’s a penalty if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet, and the contact doesn’t have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area. Simply lowering the head and initiating contact anywhere on the body is a 15-yard penalty.
If it’s a defensive player, it’s an automatic first down.
A player also can be ejected.
That’s very difficult. I hear guys like Minnesota safety Harrison Smith say, “We want to do things right. We want it to be safer. It’s our bodies and our heads. We have to live with this after we’re done playing. We’re all for it. But it has to be physically possible.”
The way the rule is written, you could technically throw a flag on a play where a guy is making a solid tackle and his helmet happens to be down. Some of these tackles happen 6 inches off the ground with the way some running backs run and lower their shoulder.
The defensive guy, it’s either get run over and lose my job or do what I have to do and risk a 15-yard penalty.
It goes back to what Harrison is talking about. It has to be physically possible. I can’t be the low man if you’re telling me I can’t lower my helmet, but that’s what you have to do just from a survival standpoint. To make this tackle, I have to be lower than the running back. You get a foot off the ground, it’s going to be impossible to do that.
There also is more clarity on incidental or inadvertent contact with the helmet, and that’s the real thing for me: intent. I think you really have to look at intent because there are too many times where an offensive player catches the football and he goes to lower his shoulder and the defensive player is just trying to get lower to make a tackle – and the only way you can do that is by lowering your head.
The ones that are penalties are the ones we can all see: “OK, he definitely tried to take his helmet straight into a player’s chest or his head.” That’s an obvious call.
I know the league and the officials have sat down and talked and looked at all the penalties throughout the preseason. They have discussed it at length. There’s a pretty good feeling among the officials that they have a good feel for it. They know what they want to do going forward.
There were calls that were made that shouldn’t have been called. That was clear. They will tell you that: You have to try to avoid that if at all possible.
It’s going to be a learning process. The game has to be safer, obviously, and I think you can do that. We’ve seen, just with some of the penalties that have been called with defenseless receivers the past two or three years, that guys have figured out how to change their aiming point and they have gotten better at that.
You don’t see guys going straight for someone’s head like you saw 15 or 20 years ago. Players have figured out where they have to hit somebody, and I think they are good at adapting.
The hard part is you have guys trying to make that call at full speed and you can’t just throw flags all over the field. But I think it should be pretty obvious, and you really have to look at the intent of the play.
Was he trying to take a guy out of this game by lowering his helmet?
Or, was he trying to make a good tackle?
If they can figure that part out, I think they’re making the right steps. If they don’t, it could be a disaster.
David Carr answers your questions
Each week, David Carr will answer a reader’s question in his column. Submit your questions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org (please put “David Carr” in the subject line)