In March, the NFL owners adopted a broad, ominous rule that generally prohibits lowering the helmet to initiate contact. If enforced as written (which, frankly, all rules should be), it would result in a dramatic impact on the game.
In May, it’s beginning to look like maybe, perhaps, possibly the rule won’t be applied according to its plain language, but instead reserved to specific circumstances where the helmet indeed becomes weaponized. Frankly, it’s still not clear how the rule will be applied, when looking at the things the NFL has said in the past, and the things it’s saying now.
For example, after USA Today reported in late March that the Competition Committee found fewer than 10 examples of 2017 plays that would have been penalties a year ago, the NFL told PFT that the information from USA Today was not correct.
“It’s a substantial change,” Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay said at the time. “Lowering their head, creating a different spine angle, and delivering a blow . . . we need to protect all players at all times and say that technique is not allowed. So if you lower your head to initiate contact and you initiate, it’s a foul. . . . It’s one of the most dangerous techniques there is, but yet we’ve allowed it to creep in and it’s now very prevalent. And we need to get it out. And we’re not going to get it out by saying, ‘We need to teach it better,’ we’re going to get it out by penalizing it.”
So it’s going to be applied a lot more extensively than only a handful of times per year, right? Apparently, wrong.
Via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent said Tuesday that, of 40,000 plays from recent years that have been examined by the league, only four hits would have triggered ejections under the new rules.
“We want officials to enforce the rule,” Vincent said, via Seifert. “I don’t want to say it’s going to be two, three, five [penalties per game] or whatever. If they see it, call it. . . . But there were four plays that we saw today that would rise to the level of ejection based on the new rule. That’s it.”
There’s only one way to harmonize these inconsistent messages: The penalty will be called routinely, but ejections will happen rarely. But that effort at harmony will serve only to introduce more uncertainty. If lowering the helmet to initiate contact is “one of the most dangerous techniques there is,” how can any instance of it result in something less than an ejection? And how will officials and/or 345 Park Avenue tell the difference between conduct that draws only a penalty and behavior that prompts an ejection?
As mentioned during Wednesday’s PFT Live, the NFL needs to get its act together, its story straight, and its messages consistent and understandable on this rule, as soon as possible. It’s one thing to implement rules aimed at trickling down to youth football and, in turn, saving it. It’s quite another to break pro football along the way.
And with a potential nationwide proliferation of legalized gambling coming very soon, the last thing the NFL needs is another vague, ambiguous, and arbitrary rule that will provide conspiracy theorists with fodder for thinking that the fix may be in, once the flags start flying — or not — during games.