The headline coming from 345 Park Avenue on Wednesday was that the new helmet rule hasn’t changed, and that it has. But as the dust settles on the non-change change to the rule that prohibits lowering the head to initiate and make contact, one word from the statement released by NFL executive V.P. of officiating Troy Vincent stands out.
“Inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul,” Vincent said in the same statement in which he said the rule wouldn’t change.
Inadvertent. As in not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning. As in not intended.
That’s a hugely critical adjustment to the rule, especially since the prior version of the rule presumed intent based on the lowering of the head.
“I think [Competition Committee chairman] Rich McKay put it best when he said, ‘This is one of the few times that we’re writing intent into the rule,'” NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron said last Friday on the #PFTPM podcast.
And they’ve now partially written intent out of the rule, by allowing for unintended helmet contact, even when the head is lowered and the intent is thereby presumed.
It’s not known how officials will draw the line between inadvertent and intentional helmet contact, but given that the goal is to prevent players from adopting a linear posture and ramming their helmets into an opponent (which increases dramatically the risk of serious neck injury), the phrase “inadvertent or incidental contact” quite possibly limits the rule to the combination of bad posture (head low, eyes down) and solid impact, with the top/crown of the helmet striking the opponent.
In other words, it’s possible that the hit won’t be regarded as something other than incidental or inadvertent unless the players lowers his head and makes forcible contact with the top/crown of the helmet against an opponent.
So the rule that the NFL insists it didn’t change has actually been overhauled, if the word “inadvertent” is given its plain and obvious meaning, and if the search for inadvertent contact unfolds through the application of basic logic and common sense. While awkward and clumsy in form, it’s potentially encouraging in result, because it could mean that penalties will be called only when the player lowers his head and delivers a forceful blow with the top of his helmet, and not when any type of helmet contact occurs after the player adopts a posture that could lead to a forbidden hit.