ORLANDO — The NFL’s new rule against lowering the helmet during a tackle will be detailed and refined before it takes effect, with some tweaking expected at another league gathering in May. Widespread alarm and dismay greeting the surprise adoption of a new tackling standard toward the end of the NFL meetings here might not be justified.
Or maybe it is justified.
We don’t know.
What we do know is that the billionaires who gather each March to discuss the business of football are very, very worried about head injuries and how their long-term effects could dim the future of the sport. And we also know that the helmet-first lunge by Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier last season, which left Shazier trying to recover from paralysis, with a return to football looking unlikely, was a huge impetus toward action.
What the new rule says, for now, is that “lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet is a foul,” and can lead to ejection, whereas previously the hit had to be with the crown of the helmet for a player to be ejected. League officials said there were a handful of plays last season that would have resulted in ejection under the new standard. The NFL reported that concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits have gone from one out of every three in 2015 to one out of every two last season, and overall concussions reached an all-time high in 2017.
But football often is a game of leverage, and heads drop in all sorts of situations, whether the player lowering his head means to use his helmet as a weapon or not.
Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill tweeted: “I don’t understand how you want us to tackle anymore,” with four question marks. Retired Eagles star defensive end Trent Cole also wondered on Twitter how tackles would be executed, and mused: “I guess now they have to pull each other down by the jersey, looking like sitting ducks.”
“I thought it was very important that we eliminate the helmet as a weapon,” Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said. “It’s also bad for the person who’s perpetrating it because a lot of injuries happen [to] the player who’s actually lowering the helmet and hitting [as was the case with Shazier]. So it’s not just helmet-to-helmet. This is meant to eliminate the use of the helmet as a weapon, anywhere. The No. 1 priority of the NFL is to make the game as healthy and safe as possible.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in his news conference Wednesday wrapping up the meetings, said players and others who weren’t part of this week’s discussions should hold off on criticizing until the league is able to hold informational sessions that will provide context.
“There’s a great deal of communication and education that still needs to take place. We’ll be doing that over the next 90 days, including going to each club, having a players, coaches, medical staff, all-hands-on-deck [meeting] at each club to be able to go through the changes and make sure everyone is fully aware of them, and the basis for those changes,” Goodell said.
Competition committee chair Rich McKay said the meeting that resulted in the adoption of the new standard included only owners, general managers and coaches, and that they pushed for change.
“I thought the tenor of the meeting was as positive as I have been involved in … and the reason was the focus was on this rule … [and] where our game needs to go with respect to the helmet. I think the coaches unanimously stood up and said, ‘We’re with it. We understand it’s a major change, and we take responsibility,’ which is what the union asked us when we met with them in Indianapolis – they said, ‘Hey, we understand the rule, we understand the change, we need the coaches locking arms with us, arm-in-arm in the teaching of this,’ and I thought that’s what the coaches said.”
Unanswered so far is how closely helmet-first contact will be called, whether every bump is a 15-yard penalty, or if some contact will be considered incidental.
What Lurie seems to envision sounds pretty drastic, at least in the early going, until players adjust.
“I think it’s gonna take a combination of ejections, fines, penalties on the field, suspensions, potentially,” Lurie said. “And I think that you can over a short period of time make sure that you have very few [such hits going forward]. I was very much wanting to see this get accomplished. … I think it’s a big deal.”
But Eagles coach Doug Pederson described a different-sounding scenario, when asked about the new rule by SI.com.
Pederson spoke of eliminating “egregious plays, those headhunting-type plays.”
“It’s not gonna eliminate me tackling you in the box, the head-to-head combat there, the collisions,” he said.
McKay said the key to success will be to make sure everyone understands the standard being used “and that it’s taught the same way at all 32 [teams’ practices]. If that happens, I think the players, they’re the best athletes in the world, they’ll conform. And hopefully, this becomes the springboard to take it all the way down, at all levels, because the head and the lowering of the head has become too commonplace, and it needs to get out of the game.”
Goodell added that officials need to be on the same page also, and said he believes that will be the case.
“We believe that this rule is actually going to be very easy for us to officiate,” he said.