True story: The NFL might have come up with a sensible fix for its much-maligned helmet rule, just in time for the start of the regular season.
After the broadly drawn rule led to a significant number of questionable flags during the first two-plus weeks of the preseason—a time when it was widely understood that more penalties would be called anyway, as a teaching tool for the officials—this past weekend saw a huge drop in helmet rule-related penalties.
Per ESPN, just nine flags were thrown for lowering the head to initiate contact during the 16 preseason Week 3 games. That’s a 64 percent decrease from the first two weeks, when 50 such penalties (plus a disqualification) were called during 33 games (watch them all here). It’s not hard to account for what led to the drop: After a competition committee conference call last week, the league decided not to officially change the rule—even as it changed the rule.
“The committee resolved that there would be no changes to the rule as approved by clubs this spring, which includes no additional use of instant replay,” NFL executive VP of football operations Troy Vincent said in a statement. “The committee also determined that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or the facemask is not a foul.”
That latter sentence is kind of a big deal. As written, the most confounding part of the helmet rule—“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent”—was the wide latitude it gave to officials to interpret what it meant. This remained true even as coaches, officials, and competition committee chairman Rich McKay took great pains to try to explain that the intent of the rule did indeed distinguish between incidental contact and deliberate, forcible contact. Now, there is clarity, even if the rule book itself will not be changed.
The league’s clarification also made something else clear: the use of the helmet rule (at section 12-2-8 of the rule book) is not the same as the unnecessary roughness penalty at 12-2-6(i) that similarly addresses “using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent.” That’s the rule that includes a parenthetical note that was quietly added this offseason, after the owners voted on the rule changes, that says, “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 officials have been announcing helmet rule infractions as “lowering the head to initiate contact,” and by explicitly clarifying (albeit without putting it into writing) that incidental contact will likewise not be penalized for those penalties, the league has drawn an obvious distinction between two separate rules that seem to address the same violation.
Despite all the consternation about the helmet rule’s enforcement, it really wasn’t being flagged all that often, even before last week’s clarification. As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert detailed after Week 2 of the preseason, the 51 flags in the first 33 preseason games only amounted to 1.03 percent of all snaps, and 1.55 flags per game. More Seifert:
For context, consider that in 2017, there were, on average, 3.2 offensive holding flags, 2.02 false start flags and a combined 2.58 flags for defensive holding, illegal contact and defensive pass interference per game.
Additionally, not one offensive lineman has been flagged this preseason—quelling a fear that arose after NFL head of officiating Al Riveron indicated following the rule’s passage that linemen who initiate contact after coming out of their stance could be penalized. And according to ESPN’s Dan Graziano, the league has acknowledged that 11 of the 51 helmet rule penalties called during the first two weeks of the preseason were called incorrectly. NBC’s Peter King got Riveron to confirm that figure, along with this quote from former NFL head of officiating and current Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira: “So it’s 40 legitimate calls in  games, with a lot of the fouls made by guys who aren’t going to be on teams when the season starts, the less-skilled players who are more apt to make plays like this because they’re playing so aggressively trying to make the team.”
So the rule is here to stay, and despite all the hand-wringing, some coaches and players are prepared to make adjustments. “It’s going to be very important work over the next couple weeks, not just learning from our own mistakes but learning from other teams,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters after the Eagles were penalized a league-high five times during the preseason’s first two weeks. And Patriots head coach Bill Belichick—whose granular understanding of the rule book has given his team an edge for close to two decades—has indicated that he seems to understand the rule and its intent:
“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.”
One final thing: After Falcons safety Damontae Kazee injured the knee of Jaguars receiver Marqise Lee on Saturday night with a hit that was flagged under the helmet rule, Jags cornerback Jalen Ramsey blamed the rule for forcing players to hit low instead of high. But this is an old complaint that dates as far back as 2010, when the league first began cracking down on head shots and hits against defenseless players.
Anyway, below are the nine plays that were flagged for helmet rule infractions over the weekend.