Nearly two months after the NFL surprisingly passed a rule that, as written, broadly prohibits players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact, the eventual impact of the rule on the game remains to be seen. In part because the precise contours of the rule remain undefined.
Bit by bit, more information regarding the new rule is emerging. On Friday, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent answered questions on Twitter regarding the new helmet rule, and his first few answers confirmed that the new rule will have two clear tiers of enforcement: a 15-yard penalty and an ejection.
According to Vincent, a player “may be ejected” if he “lowers his head to establish a linear body posture prior to making contact with the head, has an unobstructed path to his opponent, and could have avoided contact.” The video attached to the tweet contains two examples of players making ejection-worthy hits: the 2017 helmet impact by Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan on Packers receiver Davante Adams and a helmet-first hit from a 2015 Monday night game by Falcons safety William Moore on Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews.
Vincent explained that the league looked at more than 40,000 plays from the 2017 season, and that only three ejections were identified.
Separately, Vincent confirmed that, under the new helmet rule, a foul occurs “if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” Vincent demonstrates the point with video of a 2017 hit from Chiefs safety Ron Parker on Patriots receiver Danny Amendola.
It’s far closer to a bang-bang play, but Parker definitely had a chance to not plow helmet first into Amendola. And even if that play triggers a foul but not an ejection, it’s situation in which 15 yards will adjust based on a maneuver that, as of last year, was legal.
Which means that, as of 2018, the new helmet rule creates two levels of infraction. For something closer to bang-bang, a foul will be called, akin to the penalty for hitting a defenseless receiver in the head/neck area. For something that entails more time for the player to line up and attack with his helmet, it will be both a penalty and an ejection.
It won’t be a penalty, as Vincent has confirmed, if the player lowers his helmet not to initiate impact but to brace for it. That could make the rule even harder to officiate, with players colliding their helmets and a real-time decision being made regarding whether one was initiating it and whether the other was bracing for it.
Which brings into question, once again, the question of whether the new helmet rule will change the between-the-tackles running game, where plenty of players routinely dip their helmets as they try to create holes, collapse blocking plans, gain yardage, and make tackles. The league has still yet to explain that specific wrinkle.
So, basically, there’s still a long way to go before this new rule and its implications can be fully and properly understood. The sooner everyone knows precisely what is and isn’t allowed, the better.