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The NFL begins a challenging task: Trying to explain its new helmet-hitting rule

George Iloka’s hit on Antonio Brown last December was shown during Tuesday’s NFL player safety meeting as a play that could lead to an ejection (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

NEW YORK — Five weeks after the NFL ratified what it hailed as an important safety rule, league leaders gathered Tuesday with owners, coaches, game officials, former players and a representative of the NFL Players Association to try to make progress in what promises to be an arduous process of actually putting the new rule into effect.

The challenges were apparent to just about everyone at the opening session of a two-day player-safety summit at the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters. It will take time, they said, to adjust to the new rule that makes it a 15-yard penalty for a player to lower his head and use his helmet to hit an opponent during a game, with ejections possible for the most egregious violations.

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“That’s what I came here for,” Los Angeles Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn said during a break in Tuesday’s meeting. “I want to know how the officials are going to officiate this in real speed. We’re sitting here watching all this stuff on video. And that’s easy. I’ve asked six times, ‘Can you rewind that back?’ Well, they [officials] don’t have that option on the field. I just want to see how they’re going to do it — the language and how we’re going to do this and how they’re going to officiate it when it’s full speed on the field.”

The session ended with league representatives telling the other attendees that it will take about a week for the NFL to finalize the language of the portion of the new rule related to ejections, which was tweaked during Tuesday’s meeting.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others have said they expect instant replay to be used to affirm or overrule any ejections made by the on-field officials. That is a departure from the NFL competition committee’s long-standing approach that replay not be used to scrutinize judgment calls by the officials, and the replay involvement in ejections is the only part of the new rule that still must be approved by the owners when they meet in Atlanta in three weeks. The rest of the rule was ratified by the owners at the annual league meeting in March in Orlando.

Many players have reacted negatively to the rule, saying they don’t see how it will be enforced without changing the sport fundamentally.

“When we left Orlando, I thought there was a little bit of a rush,” Lynn said. “So I wanted to be here at this meeting. I was glad to see that we slowed this thing down. We’re trying to do it the right way. I think how we’re going about it now is really good.”

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NFL officials were reluctant to specify publicly how often they expect the new rule to come into effect. But the league told meeting participants that based on studying video of games from last season, there were about five violations per game of the new rule. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be five such penalties called per game, however. Officials said during Tuesday’s meeting they’re confident they can spot violations of the rule that occur in the open field. The league acknowledges that identifying infractions which happen by players at the line of scrimmage will be more difficult.

Meeting participants were shown video of four plays that the league felt were worthy of ejections of the offending players under the rule. Those plays included a hit last season by Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams and a hit by Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

“This is another challenge to get it taught better,” Atlanta Falcons Coach Dan Quinn said. “There’s definitely plays … that, ‘Okay, that play needs to leave [the sport]. And that play needs to leave.’ Maybe if we start with those plays first to say the egregious fouls [must be addressed], then it’ll kind of trickle itself down.”

Other coaches attending the meeting included the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Tennessee Titans’ Mike Vrabel, the Detroit Lions’ Matt Patricia and the New York Jets’ Todd Bowles. Owners in attendance included John York of the San Francisco 49ers and the Jets’ Christopher Johnson. Goodell and Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, participated. The NFLPA was represented by Don Davis, the union’s senior director of player affairs.

Lynn at one point during the meeting turned to Goodell, seated next to him, and showed him video on his phone of a play about which Lynn had sought clarification. At another point during the meeting, the competition committee and the NFL’s officiating department had contrasting views as to whether a play shown to the entire room — with running back Dion Lewis, then with the New England Patriots, lowering his head into a defender at the end of a run — should be a penalty under the new rule.

“As coaches, we have to change how we coach, how we teach,” Lynn said. “We have to understand that the game is changing as well. … I think the biggest adjustment is gonna be for the defensive guys. But like Todd Bowles said, a lot of times we look at this and we point a finger at the defense but it’s offense, too. It’s the [running] back angles. It’s the torpedo style. … We have to teach it on both sides of the ball.”

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Lynn said there was “no doubt” he was left with a better understanding after Tuesday’s session of how the rule will be enforced.

Said Quinn: “I would say I’m close to 90 percent clear. The thing that’s keeping you up at night is the way to get it taught to each position: How does this rule affect a running back? How does it affect an offensive guard who’s pulling? How does it affect a defensive back?”

League officials likened the implementation of this rule to the two to three seasons it took, they said, for players, coaches, officials and fans to adjust to the rules prohibiting hits to the head of defenseless players after they first were put into effect more than two decades ago.

“Thank God,” Lynn said of the prospect of this rule being phased in, “because I just felt like after we left the owners’ meetings, we’re jumping in this thing headfirst. I’m like, ‘Whoa, slow down. Let’s do this in phases.’

“It’s gonna be a very educational process for our players and for our coaches. … Let’s just get the technique. Let’s get the knee-bend, the back [position] and get the head up before we start saying let’s take the head completely out of the game because that’s gonna be hard to do. We’re teaching that right now and I think our players, once we bring them this data and the clips, they’ll make the adjustment. But it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The ejection language presented by the league Tuesday but not yet finalized said that an offender could be ejected under the new rule if he lowers his head to use his helmet to deliver such a hit after having an unobstructed path to his opponent and if the contact was avoidable. More is to be added to that criteria.

An ejection would be reviewed by the league’s officiating department in New York, and would be affirmed or overturned, after being ordered by the on-field officials. In fact, under the proposal, all ejections would become reviewable, even those not under the new helmet-hitting rule.

Coaches raised a series of issues during Tuesday’s meeting. They talked about the difficulty for defensive players to use their shoulders in tackling at a time when shoulder pads have decreased in size. They raised the possibility of a grace period during the preseason before players are fined for violations of the new rule. They spoke of the difficulty of teaching new techniques to players when offseason practice time has been limited and practice-field hitting has been curbed by the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA.

But the coaches who attended Tuesday’s meeting did appear to be on board. They agreed that coaches should do the voice-overs for the instructional videos that will be distributed to teams to educate players about the new rule.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get more teaching time in years ahead specifically devoted to this,” Quinn said. “As long as the cooperation continues on both sides, then yeah, hopefully we’ll get more teaching time.”

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