The NFL banned lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet on Tuesday, a surprising rule change that came with no advance notice to the public and resulted in fans everywhere wondering what, exactly, the new rule means.
In fact, no one seems to know for sure: Unlike the new catch rule, which the NFL rolled out with a great deal of discussion and specific examples of plays that will be officiated differently going forward, the new helmet rule was announced without anyone outside the NFL knowing it was coming.
Which means that we have no idea just how big a change this is. Under the broadest possible interpretation, “Lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet” would seem to happen on virtually every play: What is a lineman doing when he comes out of a three-point stance? What is a quarterback doing when he lunges forward on a quarterback sneak? What are a running back and a linebacker doing when they collide in the open field? Those things could all be interpreted as lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet. If the NFL is going to tell the officials to flag this new penalty under the strictest interpretation possible, then the sport we’re going to see in 2018 will barely resemble the sport of football we’ve been watching our entire lives.
On the other hand, this might turn out to be like the rule change from 2013, when the league put restrictions on ball carriers lowering the crowns of their helmets into tacklers. At the time the rule passed, there were warnings that the sport of football would never be the same. (Just read PFT’s comments that day.) As it turned out, the rule barely registered because it was so rarely enforced: The league told the officials only to flag the most flagrant, obvious examples of players using their helmets as weapons.
So will the league similarly instruct the officials on this new rule? Or is this a change that could result in several 15-yard penalties every game, and players dramatically changing the way they run, block and tackle to avoid getting penalized? Right now, we just don’t know. We may not know until the season starts.