The controversial “crown of helmet” rule was recently passed in an owners vote 31-1 (Cincinnati was the only team to vote against the new rule). Essentially what this means is: beginning this upcoming 2013 season, ball carriers (running backs and otherwise) are not allowed to intentionally lower their head into an oncoming defender, hitting the defender with the crown of the helmet, if the collision is taking place outside the tackle box and more than three yards down field. A play like that will result in a 15-yard penalty and players who repeat this offense would possibly face suspension. Here’s the description of the rule as described in an article on www.nflevolution.com.
Before I continue, I want to make it clear, I am a fan who, like you, loves the physicality of the game. Football is violent in nature and the entire premise of football is to physically enforce your will upon your opponent, most often, with violent physicality. I get that. I am like a majority of fans who fear refs will begin to control the games, much like the “replacement refs” did early last season.
With that said, I do believe, personally, that this “crown of the helmet” rule is the right decision.
I know the concerns. There are concerns about if refs will make so many calls that the game is dragged out. There are concerns that the physicality of football is disappearing. There are concerns about if runners will be able to protect themselves in the same way, if this is just another step towards flag football and if this rule will simply undermine the sport we know and love until it is nothing compared to what it once was. Fans love the big hits, and the big runs where a power runner demonstrates how offensive skill players can also be the enforcers (see Adrian Peterson).
The problem is that the NFL is stuck and this rule is the best they can come up with in an attempt to protect their players as well as retaining viewership. First of all, we need to begin with the rule itself. The rule comes into effect if a player is to “initiate forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players clearly are outside the tackle box” (Rams head coach Jeff Fisher describes the new rule). The thing to keep in mind here is that the ballcarrier lowing the head/shoulder to protect himself against an oncoming hit is still legal. The penalty comes into play when the runner leads with the crown, which is the very top of the helmet. This means that the rule will only come into play when the runner lowers his head to the point of leading with the top of his skull into the defender. The common misperception to this point is that a runner lowering his shoulder and protecting himself will result in a penalty, which is false. For the most part, runners can do what they normally would as long as they don’t use that top of the helmet intentionally in a “spearing” fashion. Earl Campbell’s famous run against the Rams (seen below) is a good example of what the “crown of the helmet” rule is trying to avoid.
While Campbell’s run is the epitome of toughness and defines what football is to most fans, it doesn’t change the fact that this new rule is 1. not nearly as dramatic as what it has been made out to be, and 2. is a necessary action by the NFL before player safety becomes a bigger issue.
The league office studied every game from Weeks 10 and 16 of the 2012 season and found that this rule would only have been called 11 times out of the 32 games, which is about one flag from this “crown of the helmet” rule for every three games. The rule simply isn’t as broad, common or as all encompassing as what many believe.
Will there be problems?
Most definitely. Refs are people too, who will have to get used to what is going to be, at times, a judgement call. However, these calls shouldn’t command too much game time and most likely won’t play a huge role on the games because the calls simply aren’t going to be as prevalent as expected.
People still don’t like how players are being limited in the physicality they can play with. If mistakes by the officials are inevitable and the calls themselves will be at the officials discretion then we return to this overarching concern of fans and players alike that the NFL is turning into a flag football league as player safety becomes a bigger focus.
The fact of the matter is that things are changing and the NFL needs to adapt. Athletes in today’s NFL are ridiculously athletic. Heck, just a month ago, we had two men who were 6’5″ 305 lbs (Terron Armstead) and 6’6″ 306 lbs (Lane Johnson), run 4.71 and 4.72 sec 40-yard dashes, respectively, at the NFL Scouting Combine. Those are two athletes who have maximized their resources (knowledge about nutrition, training… etc.) and natural, god-given athletic ability to become super athletes even by today’s standards. Every year we hear stories or watch as incredible, jaw-dropping athletes challenge the combine 40-yard dash record of 4.24 sec held by Titans RB Chris Johnson. Look at the athleticism that can be found on the defensive line and the speed across the league. In the history of football, there have always been incredible players like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen and so on, but as far as the entire league goes, players today are simply more athletic. Today athletes have a better understanding of the value of nutrition, how to gain muscle, lose body fat and maximize playing speed. The game is changing and as athletes across the league reflect that change, player safety comes back into the forefront.
My point is, players in the NFL are getting bigger, faster and stronger and as that trend continues, you will have collisions occurring at faster speeds between bigger men and more severe injuries can result. Remember just a couple years ago when the NFL was taking a lot of heat for ex-players who had suffered head trauma while playing in the NFL? Cases were popping up about players who simply “lost it” after years of NFL brutality had shaken their brains. Former Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots star Junior Seau was an example after he killed himself less than a year ago (his family is suing the NFL for causing his death through this brain trauma) along with countless other cases of former players who were either complaining about the effects of brain trauma or players who died. One player, upon hearing of those cases, retired from the game at that time and, suddenly, the common question asked in the media was (and continues to be) “Would you allow your kids to play football”. Some players, including Kurt Warner, have said “No”.
As a society, we are just now beginning to understand concussions, the causes, and the consequences. Couple that with the increasing number of reports from those greats and the NFL comes off in the media as something beyond simply “physical play” or “hard-nosed effort” but rather something savage. The NFL can’t afford to ignore the calls for safety reform because if they don’t and something horrible happens, the sport as a whole suffers. There have been players who were paralyzed playing, there have been players who were injured so badly they never played again and there have been players who have died from overexertion, but there hasn’t been a death on the field because of a hit. You could argue it isn’t possible, but if athletes are getting bigger, stronger and faster, and the league doesn’t keep those athletes from colliding with one another with their heads down, then something that severe is a possibility.
And at that point football would be dead.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the NFL is at a precarious spot right now. On one hand they can continue to leave things as is and then take on the questions about the game as they come. This does leave the NFL open, and in serious danger, if a fatal injury occurs due to a head or neck collision, which isn’t so far-fetched considering the athletes that are playing in today’s game. On the other hand, they can try to implement changes in an attempt to make the game safer so players can hopefully play longer and have better lives when they retire. This rule won’t suddenly change the entire premise of the game and… let’s be real… if the NFL actually starts losing money because of this (much like the replacement refs last season), they will do everything in their power to maintain their audience.
The fact of the matter is, this rule isn’t bad for the game. In fact, you could argue it is a small attempt to save the game. It isn’t supposed to be too intrusive to the game itself as it really shouldn’t be called too often. Without progress in player safety, these law suits against the NFL, in relation to ex-players who are suffering from head trauma, looks even worse. Plus, nothing changes easily. The current players and fans grew up with a more violent sport so that’s the game they know and don’t want it to change, understandably. However, at some point this change would have had to been made and there is no time like the present. Now, with this rule in place, younger football players will be forced to adapt and learn, which will benefit the sport down the road. Years from now, this rule will be just another part of the game. Hopefully it will make a quick transition into the NFL joining the other obscure rules that we take on as “merely part of the game”.