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Prepare for Excessive Flags Concurrent to Lowering of Helmet Rule in 2018

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How will league officials and players adjust to the new rule regarding the lowering of the helmet?

San Diego Chargers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

By now, we’re all very well aware of the NFL’s implementation of the rule that prohibits any player from lowering their head while initiating impact. While most fans saw this coming in regards to seeing the massive hits from defenders resulting in concussions on ball carriers, the league says they aren’t limiting the new rule to defenders.

This isn’t something that we’ve seen in the past. For example, receivers lowering their head to squeeze in between defenders occasionally results in helmet-to-helmet collisions where there wouldn’t have been otherwise. Running backs dropping their head near the goal line to make themselves a smaller target in order to get into the end zone often causes these hits as well.

These, according to NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay, will be penalties subject to ejection under the new rule’s guidelines. Additionally, offensive linemen will be subject to the same rules when blocking — we can only assume they mean outside of the pocket — but, plain and simple, McKay says “If you lower your head to initiate contact and you initiate, that’s a foul,” end of story.

As Ian Rapoport of NFL Media explains above, these penalties will not be limited to helmet-to-helmet, rather, the helmet being used as a weapon is the key to what they hope to change about the game.

Ultimately, the new description will change the language, broadening up the existing Article 8 of the player’s rules from 2017 taking out any contingencies.

ARTICLE 8. INITIATING CONTACT WITH THE CROWN OF THE HELMET

It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.

Note: The tackle box no longer exists once the ball leaves the tackle box.

While this seems to be a natural progression for the rule, this is going to be highly subjective once the players and officials are working in real time on the field. We often see a player changing their pad level at the last second, and another player who maintained their approach is flagged for helmet to helmet contact.

The NFL’s head of officiating, Al Riveron, shows what the league deems to be a foul which as he explains that the new rule is “all-inclusive, in all areas of the field” and that “this is what we all watched,” referring to coaches and league officials. But even as he dictates how the new rule is structured, you can see there’s plenty of room for error.

Slowing the tape down for review makes the play unreasonable to call, as we’ve seen in past years. Additionally, the league’s clip that they shared to give a visual to fans on their Twitter account does not show a single lineman, receiver or running back initiating the contact.

One of these clips shows Indianapolis Colts linebacker Antonio Morrison coming in on a tackle as the player turns toward him with no time to change his target. The result looks like a penalty, but could he have done anything else? The NFL is going to have a tough time with this and could change the game as we know it.

So, will the rule actually be officiated on an even playing field? Even though Riveron states that the rule will be enacted everywhere on the field, and every player will be subject to the rule, he limits a running back’s ability to make a “decision” to being outside of the tackle box. Isn’t a running back lowering his head to get through the line initiating contact? He doesn’t appear to think so.

The rule has been pretty inconsistent as it currently stands and is enforced. Now, with the additions to the rule, it seems as though the waters will only get muddier as officials attempt to put a premium focus on anything that looks suspect.

We all agree that concussions are terrible and can cause long-lasting effects to players, and that the league should crack down on intentional helmet-to-helmet hits. However, incidental hits which result in helmets colliding as well as hits that result in injury regardless of their point of contact are going to draw flags when they shouldn’t.

The rule itself isn’t the problem. It’s the how the rule will be interpreted, in-game, by each staff of officials that will lead to confusion, calls that aren’t consistent with the rule itself and a significant amount of ejections as a result. In other words: flags, flags and more flags.

It will be interesting this time next year to see how this new rule is received after a year of its implementation. Will the games be too long? Will the rule change the result of ‘important’ games by ejecting ‘important’ players when they didn’t actually commit a penalty? Will the weekly “we’re sorry we messed up that call” from the league be acceptable if these examples were to be displayed? We’ll see.