Saints coach Sean Payton also serves as a member of the Competition Committee. Thus, his recent visit to PFT Live also included questions regarding recent Competition Committee projects, including the new helmet rule, which generally prohibits lowering the helmet before initiating contact.
The new helmet rule continues to be cloaked in ambiguity. Will it dramatically change the game? Will the impact be limited? Mixed signals have come from the league in the weeks since the league abruptly, and surprisingly, passed the rule.
“I think you’re gonna see less of these penalties than you think,” Payton said. He also made it clear that the penalty will be called in cases where the player lowering his helmet has time to essentially line up the player who is struck with a piece of equipment that the league no longer wants players to use as a weapon.
“When we discussed the instances a year ago, it’s gonna be the obvious ones where there’s been plenty of time, if the player is approaching the tackle,” Payton said. “It’s gonna be those six or seven [incidents] from a year ago. Maybe even less than that. I don’t see that number being a tremendously high number, but we do feel like this posture, we have to remove from the game. Not the incidental portions of it but the ones where we truly can correct and teach from. It’s something that we’ll go through as a team here in our OTAs and minicamp.”
It’s still not clear whether and to what extent there will be a difference between situations where a penalty will be called and situations where an ejection will occur. Payton’s comments seem to indicate that there will be a gray area between what it takes to get flagged and what it takes to get sent to the showers.
“The good news is if the ejection is called on the field it will be reviewed always,” Payton said. “I think everyone, coaches, all of us felt like that’s gonna help us understand and get a good picture of whether it was egregious or not. The penalty is the penalty. If the penalty’s thrown and the decision is made not to eject then the penalty still stands. I think it’s a way for us to eliminate some of the hits where we’re really trying to remove, say take the helmet out of the game, but we’re really trying to take the helmet [aimed] down out of the game. Heads up or heads to the left or heads to the right but we don’t want that helmet in that position that increases both the tackler and the player being tackled their chance of injury.”
He still believes that, at the end of the day, the flag won’t be thrown all that often.
“The challenge I think for the officials sometimes is some of these hits are bang-bang,” Payton said. “We’ve seen that in the secondary and then you go back in the hits in the shoulder pad area. I don’t think it will be something that we will be looking at in the 20s or 30s. I think when the season’s over with that number will be smaller than most think. . . . Specifically there’s a timing element where it’s not bang-bang. But where I’ve got time here and I’ve continued to keep my head down here in this position. That’s where you run the risk of ejection.”
While that helps address concerns that the changes to the game will be significant, the fact remains that Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay has said that the changes will indeed be significant. If it’s too significant, fans and players will make their displeasure known. And if the question of when a flag will be thrown becomes too amorphous, many will argue that the officials have too much discretion to alter a game — especially with legalized gambling on the horizon.
However it plays out, everyone will need to get more information about the specifics of this rule before the games start.