Roughly two months from the start of the regular season, and less than four weeks from the first preseason game, it’s still not clear how the NFL will enforce two new rules that apply to helmet use.
And, yes, there are two new rules. In addition to the much-publicized (after it was secretly passed) prohibition on lowering the helmet to initiate contact, the unnecessary roughness rule has been revised to ban not only ramming, butting, and spearing with any part the helmet in a violent or unnecessary manner but all ramming, butting, or spearing, with the only limitation being “incidental” helmet contact while performing “conventional” blocking and tackling maneuvers.
So what does it all mean? No one really knows for sure, including the coach of the team that employs the chairman of the Competition Committee.
As explained by Jenny Vrentas of SI.com, the NFL has produced via several of its coaches a series of six videos aimed at explaining the rule to players. One of the videos was produced by Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who seems to think he knows how the two new rules will be applied in the trenches. But it’s clear based on his comments that it’s not quite clear to him how the two new rules will work.
“I couldn’t see where it would be very likely called for the inside guys,” Quinn told Vrentas. “Not saying it couldn’t, but contact happens so quickly when two guys are in a stance across from one another, that it would be difficult.”
Shouldn’t Quinn know for sure at this point whether a foul will or won’t be called, especially when he has direct access to Rich McKay, who runs both the Falcons and the committee that surreptitiously crafted and submitted the lowering-the-helmet proposal nearly four months ago?
Maybe Quinn has asked McKay, and maybe McKay hasn’t been able to answer. According to Vrentas, McKay “said the league will study this season how the rule change may be able to impact interior line play.” That’s a careful and diplomatic way of acknowledging that (wait for it) no one knows what’s going to happen.
McKay apparently has an idea about what could happen, since he contends that the lowering-the-helmet rule implies intent. “Very rarely do you write a rule with some element of intent in the language, but that was purposeful,” McKay told Vrentas.
That’s fine, but why didn’t they purposefully add language that makes it clear that there’s an element of intent? Maybe they’re concerned that game officials can’t spot intent in real time. If so, that’s why McKay is absolutely correct when he says rules with “some element of intent” are written “[v]ery rarely.”
McKay believes, given the proximity of offensive and defensive linemen at the snap, that players won’t have the opportunity to lower the helmet and initiate contact. “In space, where there is distance between players, it’s easier to call — once you see that posture and it is to initiate the blow,” McKay told Vrentas. “You’re not doing that to initiate contact in much closer quarters.”
That’s fine, too, if the rule book had been revised only to transform 2013’s crown-of-the-helmet rule into the new lowering-the-helmet ban. It’s the change to the unnecessary roughness rule (which says nothing about lowering the helmet or initiating contact) that, if applied as written, gives credence to senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron’s observation from May that linemen will need to get their heads up.
Here’s the likely reality: No one really knows what’s going to happen. The end result will come from the push-and-pull between teams and the league office, as game officials try to enforce and apply both new rules through 65 preseason games and 256 regular-season games, and 11 postseason contests. It will be a work in progress, a trial-and-error proposition, as everyone understands how the words in the rule book will transform into fouls, ejections, suspensions, and/or non-calls.
Here’s the real question: Is this the correct way to run a billion-dollar sports league? With legalized gambling beginning to spread throughout the country, a make-it-up-as-we-go vibe will be subject to the desires of those who want things to go in a certain way, to advance their own agendas. And the most important constituency in this regard continues to be whoever engineered the sudden adoption of the lowering-the-helmet rule with no advance discussion and the sudden appearance of the revised unnecessary roughness rule with no advance notice, because that still-unknown constituency seems to be nudging the sport toward major changes, like the abandonment of the three-point stance.
“There has been discussion of that and will continue to be, but I don’t [think we are there] yet,” McKay said regarding the possible elimination of the hand-in-the-dirt posture that helps make football football. “That’s almost to me like when people said the kickoff was definitely going away five years ago. We will evolve, and come up with rules and techniques to respond to the injury data as we get it. But we don’t make wholesale changes in the game just to make them.”
First, people still think the kickoff is definitely going away. Second, the evolution of safety-related rules changes has become a revolution since the national concussion epiphany of October 2009. Third, McKay admits that the NFL will make “wholesale changes” to the game if they think “wholesale changes” are justified by “the injury data.”
Of course, it’s more than just “the injury data.” It’s about presenting a product on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays that keeps mothers and fathers from turning to their sons and saying, “Jimmy, you’re never playing football.”