If someone had said in May, when the NFL ratified its helmet-hitting safety rule, that come August, flags would fly with regularity in preseason games, and fans and players would bemoan what they perceive as the sport’s erosion toward flag-football status, what would you have thought?
There was practically no chance it would unfold in any other manner.
This is the way it generally goes with significant NFL rule changes. Calls are made early and often during the preseason. Hysteria that the game is changing beyond recognition sets in. And then the regular season arrives, and everything usually settles down considerably.
The refrain is even more familiar when a player-safety rule is enacted. Players and former players join the chorus of fans lamenting that hard hits are, in their view, being legislated out of the sport. That sentiment never disappears entirely. But it does seem to recede somewhat as that particular rule becomes part of the sport’s fabric, at least until the next new safety rule comes along.
So what’s happening now with this new rule, which makes it a 15-yard penalty for a player to lower his head and use his helmet to deliver a hit on an opponent, was entirely predictable. It was inevitable, even. Some within the league understand that.
“We know that they’re gonna over-officiate it in preseason,” Indianapolis Colts Coach Frank Reich said after his team’s preseason game Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. “I think we welcome that because I think we all know that the helmet as a weapon is not good for the game. Nobody wants it — coaches, players, fans. So if it takes over-officiating it a little bit in preseason to help us get it right, then I think we have to live with that and just understand that’s gonna happen.”
Reich, a former NFL quarterback, said he expects an equilibrium to be reached once the regular season arrives.
“I really do think it will subside,” Reich said. “We’re all learning together. The players are learning. Officials are learning. We kind of go back and evaluate the tape and see what those hits really look like. I have a lot of confidence that will kind of find the right spot.”
In 33 games so far this preseason, there have been 51 penalties assessed under the new rule. That’s an average of 1.5 such penalties per game.
“I think we understand it,” New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick told Boston radio station WEEI. “I think I understand it. Our team looked at probably 25 plays last night. And I think all of us could see those plays, why they were called and the ones that weren’t called, why they weren’t called. The officials have a tough job to make that judgment. But I think the rule is fairly clear-cut. If you lead with your head and make contact with the opponent, then that’s a foul.”
Not everyone has been as accepting. Minnesota Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer said that the new rule will determine the outcome of some games and “cost some people some jobs.” There has been a steady stream of criticism by players, former players and other observers.
“There is no ‘make adjustment’ to the way you tackle,” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman wrote on Twitter. “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic [a]nd should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead[ing] by their head. Will be flag football soon.”
Members of the NFL’s rule-making competition committee are scheduled to speak via conference call Wednesday. Two people close to the situation said Monday that no major changes to the helmet-hitting rule are expected. The committee will review what has happened so far during the preseason and seek to achieve clarity and consistency in the application of the rule, according to one of those people.
NFL leaders previously have acknowledged that there will be an adjustment period for players, coaches and fans, comparing it to the transition that accompanied initial passage of the sport’s first rules prohibiting hits to the head of defenseless players beginning in the 1990s. The helmet-hitting rule was enacted after a 2017 season in which the number of concussions suffered by players was up and in which Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury on a hit during a December game.
“I understand it, just trying to get everybody on the same page to see what you hit,” Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson said in training camp. “I don’t want to see anybody hurt, hurting their head and hurting their neck.”
Johnson, who suffered a concussion when he hit his head on the turf during last weekend’s game against the 49ers, was among those who saw the preseason penalties coming.
“I think in the preseason they’ll probably address it and people will adjust to it,” he said in training camp. “We’ll probably see some flags. I think in the regular season, people will probably get used to it. Just like anything, it’s adjustments.”
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