The NFL’s new helmet rule is looking more and more like a big old dud. Nobody understands how to apply it—not coaches, not the players, not even the officials who are tasked with spotting violations in realtime. The line that separates a legal tackle from an illegal one is evidently thin and vague enough that even players who are sincerely trying to tackle correctly cross onto the wrong side of it, and even the referees themselves have a hard time identifying the difference.
Here’s an example of how screwed up this rollout has been: 49ers linebacker Elijah Lee was hit with a helmet rule infraction in the team’s preseason opener, for lowering his helmet on a tackle of Cowboys running back Bo Scarbrough. But, according to Lee, the NFL itself considered the penalty a misapplication of the rule:
Lee told NBC Sports Bay Area that not only was he not fined for the play, but the NFL informed a representative of his that referee Ron Torbert’s crew incorrectly threw a flag.
Incorrect interpretations of most rules are, ultimately, acceptable—a catch is unfairly taken away, or a play is called back, or a lineman gets away with a hold, and everyone is annoyed but also Fine. But this helmet rule is designed ostensibly to protect players’ brains, and is meant to influence the ways in which enormous professional athletes crash into each other at terrifying speeds. Confusion about the angle at which he should be bending his neck is just about the worst thing an NFL linebacker could be experiencing as he races into a hole to collide with, like, Le’Veon Bell, pointed downhill.
In recognition of the fact that basically no one understands the new rule, and the existing tutorial video is a piece of crap that mostly only created more confusion, the NFL is now reportedly planning to produce an updated teaching video. A recut! The Ultimate Director’s Cut:
The revised video will be prepared by Al Riveron, the league’s vice president of officials, with assistance from other league executives. It will include proper and erroneous applications by game officials, which one source said has generated a “predictable hysteria” because it is the first time the new rule is being officiated.
The league is reportedly anticipating a three-year time frame before players are sufficiently adjusted to the new way of doing business, but that of course assumes that the rule is applied consistently, and appropriately, such that players are able to develop a honed sense of what is and what isn’t allowed. In the meantime, one head coach has cautioned that this period of uncertainty will inevitably “cost some people some jobs.” Unfortunately, the stakes are far more frightening than that.