The NFL’s helmet rule has thus far proven to be every bit as inscrutable as it seemed when the language was approved during the offseason. Players, coaches, officials, and broadcasters can’t seem to agree on how the rule is expected to be enforced. That look up there on the face of Titans head coach Mike Vrabel pretty much sums it up.
Deadspin examined all 50 of the helmet rule penalties from the 33 preseason games played so far. A number of those calls were clear and obvious. Several others were decidedly less so. And with the regular season a little more than two weeks away, the league appears to be ready to do something about it.
According to Pro Football Talk, a conference call is scheduled for Wednesday, during which participants are expected to lobby for possible fixes to the rule. Also, per ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the league plans to prepare “an updated video tutorial that will be distributed to game officials, coaches and players once the final preseason games are played and in time for teams preparing for their regular-season openers.” Several of the league’s coaches had made position-specific videos that the league distributed before the start of training camps. But those videos only wound up sowing more confusion.
The new rule, which is broad in its scope, simply says the following:
It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.
Separately, there is this subclause:
... 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)
The NFL also showed a video that can be found here to media members at all 32 training camps. And the league’s operations website articulates the officiating standards for the use the helmet rule as follows:
- Lowering the head (not to include bracing for contact)
- Initiating contact with the helmet to any part of an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area—lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent’s torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul.
- Making contact on an opponent (both offense and defense)
I attended the presentation that was shown to the media at the New York Jets’ camp on Aug. 7. In response to a question, longtime referee Tony Corrente explained that when both a ballcarrier and a defender lower their heads to collide—as is common—both players should be flagged for offsetting penalties. Yet that’s not what’s been happening. Corrente also said that players who lower their heads could avoid flags by turning their heads as they attempt to tackle with their shoulders and wrap up. Yet those hits have also been flagged a bunch.
It is widely assumed that the officials—who have to decide whether to flag these hits in real time, in a fast-paced game with all sorts of body movement, while still learning what to do with the rule—will penalize these hits more frequently during the preseason before developing better consistency once the season begins. As referee Brad Allen told reporters at Patriots camp earlier this month:
“In the preseason, we want to err on the side of putting the flag on the ground and then evaluating if it’s correct. We want to be right by the time we get to the season. So, will it be subjective to some degree? I think it will. We have to remember that safety is a priority, but there are a number of fouls that are subjective.”
Flags have been thrown for helmet rule violations in 27 of this season’s 33 preseason games. Forty of the 50 helmet rule penalties have come against defensive players, including two against defenders engaging with blockers. Four occurred on punt coverage, two happened on kickoff coverage, two were on offensive players attempting to make a block, one was against a running back smashing into the line, and one was during a tackle after a fake punt.
Note that this does not include three hits initially believed to come under the helmet rule. Those hits—by Nick Orr of the Bears and by Bennett Jackson of the Ravens during the Hall of Fame Game, and by Shamarko Thomas of the Colts, who was ejected in preseason Week 1—were ultimately categorized as unnecessary roughness, and not for lowering the head to initiate contact.
All* of the flagged violations of the new helmet rule can be seen below.
(Look for the collision near the 30-yard line.)
* Except for one called on Richard Rodgers of the Eagles during preseason Week 1, which happened during punt coverage and was not captured by the broadcast cameras.