FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Take a look at that tackle up there from last season by Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo. Now try to guess, according to the NFL’s new helmet rule, whether the league will consider what Sendejo did to be legal or illegal. As you think it over, let’s consider the rule and what various league personnel have had to say about it since word of its inscrutability began to spread this summer.
First, the rule itself, including an additional subclause with a parenthetical that was quietly tacked on after the fact:
It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.
...using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent (Note: This provision does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle or block on an opponent)
But what constitutes “incidental contact”? Or even a “conventional tackle or block”? Especially given the speed with which the game is played, the speed with which officials will have to make such judgments, and the likelihood that sudden movements by ballcarriers or tacklers could cause a player to lower his head and have his helmet initiate contact, even incidentally?
The answers will of course be determined by how the officials enforce the rule. On Tuesday, longtime NFL referee Tony Corrente was on hand at the New York Jets’ compound to show the 11-minute video embedded here to the media and to take questions. I schlepped out there for it. The video Corrente showed contained a graphic that provided some clarity, even if it only prompted an additional question:
To wit: How will officials distinguish between initiating for contact and bracing for contact?
“That’s our experience,” Corrente answered when I asked him that. “That’s exactly what we get paid for, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s no different than what we’ve been seeing—and our big experience, so far, has been the defenseless receiver. ... I believe, that as we’ve gone further and further down the road, we have been able to make those determinations much better because of the experience we have in recognizing those types of plays.”
Left unsaid here is that the defenseless player rule which Corrente referenced is narrowly drawn, with 12 subclauses defining exactly what it is and three additional subclauses in place to strictly identify which contact is prohibited:
This gives officials far more guidance on when a player is considered defenseless. The NFL has been criticized for having rules that are too long and detailed, and it’s true that the catch rule (to name one) had gotten too bogged down by overlegislation. But there’s room for some kind of happy medium here for the helmet rule. A clearer helmet rule, as NBC rules analyst (and ex-ref) Terry McAulay told Pro Football Talk, might have been even just a little bit more specific.
“They didn’t put in the words ‘forcible’ or ‘punishing,’” McAulay said. “That was a real surprise to me that they went as far as they did right off the bat.”
Corrente said he had met with Jets players the night before to take their questions. He told them he emphasized that they should “try to make sure that you’re leading with that shoulder, not leading with the forehead directly into the body.” At another point, as Corrente walked through the process of how officials might interpret what they see, he said players who lower their heads would be okay if they were turn their heads as they made contact. “When we see a player lowering his head and coming into contact with somebody, our lights go off,” Corrente said. “It has to be very obvious that he has turned his head away for him for us, in full speed, to detect that it isn’t a foul.”
This actually kind of clears up why the Ravens were flagged three times for helmet rule violations during last week’s Hall of Fame game against the Bears. In all three instances, what looked like conventional tackles got pinched because the tackler led with the crown of his helmet. In light of what Corrente said about players having to turn their heads, it becomes easier to see the Ravens were flagged for hits the league would like to reduce substantially.
Corrente also said the helmet rule would be applied to play along the offensive and defensive lines only when the officials see “something that is very obvious and apparent.” Which means the three-point stance is probably safe for a while.
There’s still plenty to be confused about, and plenty for the officials to learn. The next three or four weeks—i.e., the preseason—will also be an adjustment for the officials, Corrente acknowledged. But there’s going to be a lot for the players to get used to, too. Consider the instructional videos a handful of coaches put together for different position groups, at the suggestion of Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. Jets head coach Todd Bowles narrated the instructional video for defensive backs. This is one of the clips that video shows:
“His knees are bent, his head is up, good tackle, good football play,” Bowles says in the video. Except the tackler’s head isn’t up, even if the tackler did make contact with his shoulder and his helmet as he appeared to be bracing for contact while making the tackle, rather than initiating it.
Another example was just as baffling.
“Very good form tackle—head up, wraps up, knees bent, pads down, head out of the way ... still physical but playing the game the right way,” Bowles said. Again, though, the tackler’s head is down and he appears to initiate contact with the top of his head just as much as his shoulder. The way the rule is worded, shouldn’t this be the sort of play that gets flagged? This is not to pick on Bowles, specifically, but to show just how easy it can be to misinterpret the rule because of how broadly it’s worded.
Think back to the hit Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins laid on Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl:
Then consider that when the Eagles had the chance last month to question officials about the helmet rule, the officials who were present had differing answers as to whether Jenkins’s hit would get flagged this season. This is a bad sign. It ultimately doesn’t matter how the officials decide to call the rule, so long as it’s called consistently. But the rule leaves so much to the officials’ judgment, it’s likely going to be difficult for them all to call it the same way. Which, as soon as one of these calls decides the outcome of a game, ought to go over well.
Back to the Sendejo hit at the top of this post. It, too, was part of Bowles’s instructional video for defensive backs. If you guessed that it was shown as an example of a clean hit, you’d be correct.