“Helmet off” rule needs a minor tweaking


That memorable goal-line collision late in Thursday night’s game has brought into a focus a safety rule that, in this instance, came into play only after the ball carrier had absorbed a brutal blow to the head.

Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who generated 136 total yards from scrimmage on 23 touches, was touched as violently as any football player ever can be as he tried to score the potential game-tying touchdown.  Caught in a Malachi Crunch of Ravens, Bell’s helmet came off an instant before he crossed he crossed the plane with the ball for what would have been his second score of the night.

Replay review reversed the call, because Bell’s helmet was off before the ball kissed the front of the white line that borders the end zone.

The rule is as simple as it is unyielding.  Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 states, “An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended,” followed by 18 specific instances of “when.”

At part (r) — the 18th and final “when” — the rule says “when a runner’s helmet comes completely off.”

A safety provision adopted several year back, it’s as black-and-white as a rule can get.  Helmet off?  Play over.  Period.

It doesn’t matter where the player is.  Helmet off receives the same treatment as knee down.

And so it was easy for referee Clete Blakeman (who has had an eventful 10 days) to look at the video and determine that, when Bell’s helmet was “completely off,” the ball wasn’t yet touching the goal line.

But something seems unfair and unnatural about the result.  Though not airborne, Bell was lunging forward but not yet down.  The rules, however, say he was down because his helmet came off.

Moving forward, this specific situation should prompt the NFL to consider modifying the rule to include the phrase “unless the player is in the process of going to the ground.”  Indeed, if a player’s helmet comes off while he is going to the ground, no one is going to stop what they’re doing because a player’s helmet has come off.  The action will continue until the guy is down; killing the play does nothing to help protect him at that point.

While the officials got the “helmet off” portion of the play right under the current rules, it appears that Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith may have gotten away with an illegal ramming of the crown of the helmet on Bell.  Linebacker Courtney Upshaw also apparently attempted to ram Bell with the crown of Upshaw’s helmet from the other direction, but Upshaw ultimately delivered only a glancing blow.

Lost in the outcome of the play is the fact that it almost didn’t happen at all.  With Bell lined up behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and anticipating the snap, Bell started to lean forward and nearly lost his balance, which would have drawn an illegal procedure penalty and killed the entire play before it happened.

Based on how Bell and Smith possibly are feeling today, maybe they wouldn’t have minded that alternative outcome.

84 responses to ““Helmet off” rule needs a minor tweaking

  1. You want a guy to take a dive at the player’s unprotected head to keep him from crossing the goal? No, leave this rule alone.

  2. Players can avoid this happening by wearing their helmets proper and secure. Watch players slip helmets on and off easily and that is not how they are supposed to be used.

  3. There is too much subjectivitiy in “in the process of going to the ground.” I have seen too many great running backs LOOK like they are going down, but continued for significant yardage. This issue is corrected merely by strapping your helmet on, better.

  4. I think last night shows that you will have players even MORESO target the head to dislodge the player from their helmet to kill the play. Bell scored an obvious TD that did not count because of the way the rule is worded. What’s to stop defensive players from trying to hit opposing RBs as hard as they can in the head, hoping to remove them from their helmets?

    Also, anybody else see the irony that this rule was supposedly put in for player safety purposes to prevent concussions, only to see the potential for defenses to use it to their benefit. This rule MUST be changed.

  5. “Hats off” to both teams on a good game!

    It would have helped the Ravens if Leveon had gotten in because it would have given the Ravens more time on the cl0ock to drive the field and win the game.

    Of course it doesnt matter, the Steelers eventually scored and couldn’t convert the 2 pt cvonversion OR the onside kick anyway.

  6. Come on Mike. I know you’re a steelers fan, but this is unbecomming.

    Instead of changing the rules:

    Players need to properly size their helmets, and buckle their chin straps.

    The rules is a safety rule. You don’t want runners with helmets off trying to make players. Thats going to the ground or not.

    Also, you want players to keep their helmets on. Bell’s helmet was not on correctly.

  7. Hey, La’Veon…You see those metal things on your helmet? They are called snaps and they prevent your helmet from coming off. There are six of them. Use them all and your helmet will stay on your head.

  8. So Jimmy Smith “got away with one”?

    The Steelers scored anyway so the point is moot. If they want to fix something they can levy heavy discipline on a buffoon of a coach standing on the field during a kick return that ultimately saved his team four points.

  9. Malachi crunch? Great Happy Days reference to smile about on a post-Thanksgiving victorious Friday morning!!!

  10. Probably the longest whine any of us will see today.

    If I see a guy lose his helmet, I’m gonna do what I can to not hit him in the head. Again, you’re using a fair bit of license to assume that reasonable men won’t change what they would normally do when a player loses his helmet. Nobody wants to kill anybody out there. Nobody worth a pair of used cleats, anyway.

    Solution: If your helmet comes off and your chinstrap is still snapped, guess what? Tighten that chin strap because it’s too loose. The headache it gives you is nothing compared to how some 320 pound fatty will make you feel if he steps on your unprotected head.

  11. I agree this rule needs modified. There’s a big difference between what happened last night, and a runner’s helmet coming off and running another 15 yards.

  12. @robf2010

    What part of this enforcement of the current rule prevented that? NOTHING. They still could have taken a dive at his unprotected head through the whistle.

  13. The rule, as written, doesn’t keep players from taking shots at a helmetless head. It merely rules them down before their skull gets crushed. Modifying the rule allows the player the benefit of their momentum, and TAKES AWAY an incentive to target the helmet when players battle for inches at the goalline, the line of gain, or the out of bounds line.

  14. I’m all for safety when it comes to head shots especially but I agree with the person above who said that it seems to be a matter of the helmet’s fit. If I remember right, Bell’s helmet popped off with the chin strap still buckled which suggests he was wearing to too loose to begin with.

    As a side note, I see that Blakeman’s crew does, in fact, know how to call a PI penalty.

  15. This is one of the worst rules in a league full of terrible rules. If a guy is running around wild without a helmet, fine, blow the play dead. If he loses his helmet as he’s about to cross the goal line, he shouldn’t be punished by taking away a touchdown he earned.

  16. officals sucked again, there were alot of fouls on both teams that wern’t called, especially all the holding that went on all night. Please tell me again how the fulltime refs are better than the replacement refs.

  17. @godsteam,

    Crying about the refs properly calling a rule, the last refuge of fans who won’t admit their team played poorly.

    Nobody likes this rule ? Blame the concussion lawsuit. The National Attorney Ball League, at stadiums near you every fall.

  18. The rules should not be changed. Helmets come off more frequently than they should. That is likely because they aren’t secured properly or they aren’t the right size. If anything, that is what should be fixed/enforced.

  19. @steelersaregodsteam

    The Crusaders were the ones with God on their side against the infidels. You say this is a crusade against the Steelers, but your screen name says the Steelers are God’s team. Either your statement is wrong or your screen name is a lie. 😉

  20. It makes a difference. Anytime players are allowed to advance the ball without a helmet, including on the way to the ground, defenders will try to tackle them to make them come to the ground without going forward at all. The only alternative rule I can think of is that once a players helmet comes off they can be downed by and only by the tag of a hand and there is an automatic replay after any play where the helmet came off to determine when that was. But, its so rare that asking players to switch modes might be impractical. Regardless, there should be an automatic replay whenever the helmet comes off to determine when it came off, because refs arent used to looking for that either.

  21. Such pro steeler talk from Florio…never!! You fail to mention bell leading with the crown of the helmet outside of the tackle box which is now illegal!!

  22. Leaving the rule alone is a start. That was a brutal hit last night. I’m not a fan of either team, but you couldn’t help but feel bad as 2 players were laying helpless on the field.

    If the league is truly concerned with player safety they need to take this one step farther. They need to start mandating that the players wear up-to-date equipment (or at least more up to date than some wear currently). A properly fitting helmet might have prevented it flying off at least.

  23. I think the rule is fine, the problem in this case is he took 2 helmet to helmet hits and there was no penalty. The fact that the play was dead was one of only a few calls the officials got right in this game.

  24. I felt there should have been a roughing flag called on the Ravens for the play, and the Steelers should have had 1st down half the distance.

  25. The helmet is suppose to be slipped on and off with ease with the chin strap buckled. Too tight can cause other serious issues. Every team has medical staff that are paid to provide helmets that fit snug for each player.

  26. The NFL does not care about player safety!

    Much much safer helmets are available for use, but the NFL won’t sanction them because the manufacturer has not paid the NFL for the privilege.

    If the player’s union had any care for its members it would demand use of these far superior helmets rather than those now being used with outdated technology.

  27. LOL!! People assume players can pick whatever helmet size they want. The team medical staff is on top of this stuff guys. Hard hits causes the helmet to come off sometimes. Plus remember the NFL changed the rule for leading with the head so by NFL standards Bell is at fault for his concussion.

  28. They should blow any play dead whenever anyones helmet comes off on defense or offense. That would mean every other play in a game that AJ Hawk is playing in would be blown dead. Never seen a guys helmet come off so much.

  29. @blackcatsluck – You don’t think any player did/will/can/would ever slow down when they see a helmet flying? The rule is good.

  30. As long as we are destroying the game, let’s have the refs check all of the chin straps before each play. That will only add 2 hours to each game “but if one concussion can be prevented!!” Oh geez

  31. How much money did Jerome Harrison lose because of hits like the 2nd one that ultimately dislodged Bell’s helmet last night? I remember a very similar play on a running Massaquoi against Cleveland that resulted in a fine.

  32. Just what we need. More exceptions to dumb rules and more refs making judgment calls as to what “going to the ground” means.

    The rule should be scrapped anyway. First, it rewards defenders for taking crushing head shots instead of discouraging defenders from helmet contact. Isn’t that the purpose of the new safety rules? Next, what does “completely off” mean? If the helmet is airborne but the end of the chin strap is is still barely in contact with the face, is the helmet completely off? These fly by night rules are asinine and killing the game!

  33. A few thoughts reading through the comments.

    1. Bell was not injured due to helmet coming off, he was hurt due to a text book helmet to helmet hit.

    2. Lost in the discussion is that the helmet to helmet hit went inexplicably unpunished by refs.

    3. Moot point that Steelers scored anyway? Tell that to the Steelers and the Steelers center who was lost on the very next play. I don’t think they will agree that it was a moot point.

    4. Logic seems to be thrown out the window with the current interpretation of this rule. So now every time a player drops the ball after an identical collision with the helmet being knocked off the review will determine that the play is killed before such a fumble? The next time I see that type of officiating decision will be the first time I see such an officiating decision.

    What I’m suggesting here is that the players was not any safer because replay rule intervened. When player loses helmet, game should be stopped at first possible LOGICAL opportunity. No one is going to be saved because a replay was able to split hairs. It is absurd that his type of play is even reviewed.

    5. Jimmy Smith will be fined. How about the officiating crew that ignored such a violent and imo intentional launching of the defender’s weapon (helmet) into the cranium of an opposing player who was simply trying to dive into the end zone?

  34. Actually, the NFL should just get rid of the rule entirely.
    This is another example of over legislation of NFL rules to improve player safety.
    Football Helmets, just like Boxing Headgear, don’t reduce concussions – they increase the likelihood of concussions. All the Helmets do is reduce the likelihood of cuts and abrasions.
    As cuts and abrasions aren’t the underlying concern, this rule is worse than useless.
    What the NFL needs is a safety committee of scientists to examine whether the hamfisted attempts by coaches on the competition committee make any sense at all from a standpoint of reducing brain injury, not any injury at all .

  35. chisox35 says:
    Nov 29, 2013 10:17 AM
    The helmet is suppose to be slipped on and off with ease with the chin strap buckled. Too tight can cause other serious issues. Every team has medical staff that are paid to provide helmets that fit snug for each player.

    ABSOLUTELY an incorrect statement. Why would the helmet even need a chin strap if the helmet is supposed to be able to come off with or without it?

    I used to be a youth football coach. The helmet is supposed to be tight enough so that your head moves where the helmet moves. When the helmet is on the correct way, your head will move every where the helmet does.

    (Why do you think facemask penalties are so dangerous?)

  36. Why is the discussion about this rule focussed on how it benefits or hurts a teams success when the essence of the rule is to protect vulnerable players from further injury.

  37. robf2010 says: Nov 29, 2013 9:17 AM

    You want a guy to take a dive at the player’s unprotected head to keep him from crossing the goal? No, leave this rule alone.
    I’m not a fan of either team. The rule is a good one in that it’s intent is to stop play and prevent injury once a player loses his helmet. However, in this case the Steelers lost a touchdown on what was a basically a technicality. The play is supposed to be blown dead as soon as the helmet comes off, but the refs didn’t blow it dead before he crossed the goal line, because of not enough time.

    They got the call right according to the rules, but when reviewing the call on replay, it may be helpful to allow discretion on whether or not it affected the play. Bell didn’t get in because the Ravens backed off when he lost his helmet.

  38. Yeah, I just love sitting through another replay looking for something to take a touchdown away. Knee down, elbow down . . . now landing in the end zone without a helmet. I’m with Florio on this one and I despise the Steelers with every grain of my being.

  39. Although this is a decent discussion, I am surprised nothing has been said about the 10 second run off rule for teams who have injuries.

    Although I understand it is in place to stop teams from faking, yesterday when a Raiders player was kneed in the head inadvertently by the SS Heath of the Cowboys, why should the Raiders be punished?

    Or any team in a similar circumstance? I am not a fan of the Raiders, but that could have been huge had Janikowski kicked liked a professional on that on side kick.

  40. “Bell didn’t get in because the Ravens backed off when he lost his helmet.”

    I don’t know if that’s true or not BUT, we do want them to back off once the helmet is gone.

    On another note: Why are helmets flying off all the time now? This was a rarity 10 years ago.

  41. jakec4 | Nov 29, 2013, 9:27 AM EST
    So Jimmy Smith “got away with one”?

    The Steelers scored anyway so the point is moot. If they want to fix something they can levy heavy discipline on a buffoon of a coach standing on the field during a kick return that ultimately saved his team four points.

    Whining about the refs after you win is very tacky even for a raven fan…..ssshhh . Some calls are missed against every team every game….winners overcome that….whiners don’t.. If they want to fix something suspend the helmet launching Raven….wawawawawa

  42. There is nothing wrong or unfair with the rule. You can’t tweak everything, sometimes you have to live with the rule.

  43. Rule should simply provide that play is stopped when refs deem that the helmet has been dislodged. Like so many other situations, it is the whistle that kills the play. Language never would need to change, only the league’s instructions to the refs on how the league wishes the rule to be interpreted–like so many other rules, and as the case in other sports. There is nothing to gain by making this a reviewable play. This situation does not fall in the spirit of why instant replay exists.

  44. gpry says:
    Nov 29, 2013 10:02 AM
    Such pro steeler talk from Florio…never!! You fail to mention bell leading with the crown of the helmet outside of the tackle box which is now illegal!!

    So do you think if this exact same play occurred in a broncos chargers game this topic would be ignored?

    When you get tripped up there are not many directions you can go but forward and yes that means your head will be leading the way.

  45. When Marshawn Lynch is “going to the ground”, he gains an additional 4 to 6 yards.

    The play last night was absolutely fair and natural.

    No tweaking of the rule is desired, much less required.

  46. thetruthcampaign says:
    Nov 29, 2013 11:21 AM

    Now, if you can’t tackle him, just rip his helmet off.

    Which would likely get a flag for grabbing a helmet opening or facemask …

    As its been stated above though…when a guys helmet comes off u don’t want people to lower their shoulders into some guys head all to prevent a TD… last night was probably worry some enough for that young guys family.

    Its also something that doesn’t happen too frequently or at least in the games I have watched for the past couple years.

  47. Two things:

    1). Bell was out BEFORE he hit the ground…his arm position shows that. If the ball had come loose, you can’t blame it on him–he’s out cold! That’s why the rule is there!

    2). The helmet is NOT supposed to “slip off easily” with the chinstrap attached. The helmet and head are ONE UNIT if fitted properly. The helmet stays buckled and is taped to a backboard if a spinal injury occurs to provide a neutral position of the neck and to STABILIZE the head and neck!

  48. I think the rule is a good rule and it was definitely called correctly last night. However, I also agree that if a player is on his way down already then the play should be able to finish out. If the player can continue gaining yardage then it should stop immediately. In this case Bell was going down whether or not the play was stopped and had no chance of further advancing the ball other than his natural fall. I played against him last night in my fantasy league so I was happy it didn’t count. But in my opinion, the rule does need the tweaking to allow the progress of the natural fall.

  49. a) Maybe this will teach players to properly wear their safety equipment.

    b) Call it karma for having a coach that doesn’t know better than to stay off of the field while the ball is in play, and getting away with that

  50. How about this? Keep the rule but make the moment the helmet comes/came off non-reviewable. The play is dead when the ref blows the whistle and it is up to them, LIVE, to make that call. That’s one less piece of minutiae the official has to worry about when reviewing a play. Maybe they wouldn’t need as much time under the hood that way. Everybody wins.

  51. The rule was applied correctly. Aside from the obvious safety issues, it’s also incentive for players to secure their helmets PROPERLY. You’re not gonna be able to bring multi-million dollar concussion lawsuits AND think you can wear your helmet with a loose strap with superglued snaps so you can very easily slip it on and off your head. This should be a penalty every time a helmet comes off but the strap stays snapped.

  52. Good Lord stop turning football into friggin debate team. More rules, rule changes, more rules, stupid rules, safety rules, more rules, rule interpretations…

    Killing the game.

  53. That was a touchdown. And if not a touchdown, then it was first and goal at the six-inch mark because the Raven defender deliberately speared Bell in the helmet with the intent to cause injury. And I don’t care that Bell is a runner rather than a receiver. Trying to decapitate is trying to decapitate. If it were the NCAA, he’d have been ejected.

  54. This rule absolutely should not change. Black and white no subjective ness or difference of ruling between crews.

    In addition to ball carrier helmet off rule, The NFL needs to adopt NCAA rule, where helmet comes off, player sits one play unless bought back in by timeout. The number of helmets off in NCAA has reduced the last two years as players have tightened the fit to minimize chance off being sent off.

    Player safety rule. Tight fit, chin strapped in, good mouthpiece, ounce of prevention worth pound of cure. NFL needs to follow suit and get these men to wear equipment properly.

  55. The rule HAS to be tweaked. Imagine that was 4th down! A guy scores, but his helmet comes off so they lose the game on it. That would have been preposterous. Blow the whistle, but the ball needs to be spotted where he ultimately lands.

  56. This is the same site that argues about rules being too complicated. I say leave it as it reads; its simple and easy to understand. Maybe Bell should get a proper fitting helmet and wear it correctly.

  57. I’m no fan of either team, but I kinda agree with Florio for once. It seemed so unnatural that the play was stopped somewhere in the middle of his lunge forward to the end zone. I think if someone is in the act of going to the ground you have to let that continue until the player touches down. I don’t think the current rule is saving anybody in that split second.

  58. Some of these NFL rules as well as many laws being passed in this country have one thing in common-a complete lack of common sense. Like Florio mentioned, 22 players arent going to stop going full speed simply because the runners helmet comes off. And what if a defender gets tricky and decides to yank a runners helmet off in order to stop a potential TD? Riddle me that, reffie….

  59. How is it possible that this wasn’t a Helmet-to-Helmet penalty? The result should have been 1st & goal rather than 3rd and goal. The Final result would have been the same since we scored & missed the 2 point conversion, but it could have changed the outcome.

  60. I’m wondering if you would feel the same way about this had Bell fumbled the ball before he hit the ground…since it appears he was knocked out by the hit. we could be discussing why a fumble recovery was taken away from the Ravens

  61. They need to back off these rules. Play ends when he is down. Helmets come off when players don’t tighten them on like they are supposed to. It’s a fit issue

  62. Deb says: Nov 29, 2013 2:10 PM

    That was a touchdown. And if not a touchdown, then it was first and goal at the six-inch mark because the Raven defender deliberately speared Bell in the helmet with the intent to cause injury. And I don’t care that Bell is a runner rather than a receiver. Trying to decapitate is trying to decapitate. If it were the NCAA, he’d have been ejected.
    Total crock, Deb. There was no intent to cause injury and you know that. Bell was leading with the crown of his helmet and was met at different angles by players getting low, and he was doing the same thing.

  63. Oh, frank, my long lost bowling partner …

    If you know nothing else about me, you should know I post what the truth as I see it. Smith came in from the side, lowered his helmet and slammed Bell in the helmet deliberately. That’s what I saw. Eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate so I’ll leave open the possibility that I saw it wrong. But I wouldn’t have posted it was deliberate if I hadn’t believed it to be true.

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