When the NFL secretly slipped the new helmet rule onto the agenda of Competition Committee proposals in March, making it No. 11 to a previously-published list of ten, the league office knew what it was doing. Someone(s) wanted to be able to push the rule past ownership without anyone sounding the alarm about the potential consequences of prohibiting any and all lowering of any and every portion of the helmet to initiate contact with any and all parts of an opponent’s body.
As a result, no one even knew about the new rule until it became a new rule, and by the time the debate even had a chance to get started, the debate was over.
But to the extent the NFL thought there would never be a debate, the NFL was mistaken. The random warnings from some (but not nearly enough) in the media regarding the breadth of the rule and its potential impact on the game have become a firestorm of criticism, now that games are being played and flags are being thrown.
“To all those [people] including those who made the rule,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said on Twitter regarding the application of the rule. “I want a video of YOU running full speed and being lead by anything but your head while also attempting to bring down a moving target. You will soon realize it’s impossible.”
The league expects players to adjust, either by keeping their faces up, by striking the opponent with the flipper of the shoulder pad, or by contorting their bodies to spin the helmet away from the opponent, striking him with something other than the thing covering the defensive player’s head.
“There is no ‘make adjustment‘ to the way you tackle,” Sherman said on Twitter. “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic and should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon.”
Sherman adds a link to a video of a rugby tackle, claiming that it would be a penalty in today’s NFL. But it’s hard to tell whether the tackler’s head strikes the player he tackles; one of the few clear aspects of the new helmet rule is that, even if the head is lowered, there’s no foul unless the head makes contact with the opponent.
Still, Sherman is right regarding one very important point: In real time and at full speed, helmet contact by a tackler against a ball carrier is inevitable (especially when tackling from the side), and whether a penalty is or isn’t called will be a product of chance. The only way to avoid the risk of being flagged will be to ensure the face is up at all times (which is far easier said than done, particularly when diving) or to turn into the opponent at the right moment, striking him with the back of the shoulder pads and keeping the helmet completely out of the fray.
The only way to avoid this rule being the dominant story line of the 2018 season will be to tweak it before the regular-season opener in 18 days, either by adding language like “forcible” or making an exception for incidental contact or limiting the foul only to contact initiated by the top/crown of the helmet. Or by, as Sherman suggested, getting rid of the rule right now.
However it plays out, no change is possible without 24 owners voting in favor of whatever adjustment is deemed preferable to a season that may entail a threat to the game far more significant and real than the huffing and puffing sparked by the anthem controversy.