The Helmet Rule's Debut Was Really Messy

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Photo: Joe Robbins (Getty)

Football is back! With a game that didn’t count. And was mostly played by guys who will barely or not at all play meaningful snaps in the games that do count. And you probably didn’t even realize the first preseason game was even happening, until now. Feel the excitement!!! But, anyway, some stuff that might end up mattering did happen, so let’s talk about that.


The Bears or the Ravens won their preseason matchup, but far more importantly, this was the first chance for officials to call the controversial, confusing new helmet rule—and the first chance for players and coaches to gripe about the changes.

As a reminder, the new rule, plus an associated subclause:

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)

Considering how often the helmet is used—especially how often linemen make first contact each other with their helmets—the rule has the potential to be called a lot. Maybe enough to fundamentally change the sport. (The NFL muddled matters further when they quietly updated the rule to contain the aside about not flagging “conventional tackle[s],” however that’s going to end up being defined.) Officials have been making presentations to each team during training camp to try to prepare them, and it’s just leaving players even more confused. No one really knows what’s going to be called and what’s not, and with what degree of consistency. Well, the only way to find out was to start throwing some flags!

In last night’s game, the Ravens were flagged three times for unnecessary roughness under the new helmet rule. LB Patrick Onwuasor in the first quarter:

Then, in the third quarter , on LB Kamalei Correa:


Finally, in the fourth, on safety Bennett Jackson:


Bennett, who was visibly not happy with the call on his tackle, told ESPN he believes officials are going to be flag-happy in preseason, and err on the side of penalizing.

“I feel like they’re trying to harp on it a lot more in preseason, so they’re going to throw flags even on times when it’s not necessarily head to head, just to make people aware of it,” Jackson said. “I spoke to the ref. He even said, ‘Hey, it’s preseason, we got to throw the flag.’”


John Harbaugh, who called the helmet rule a “great rule” back when it was announced in May, had very little to say about it Thursday night, telling reporters, “I don’t know enough about the rule to understand it right now and comment on it.”

There are going to be growing pains with this rule, which is, for once uncynically, purely about player safety. (Okay, we can be a little cynical and note that things like Ryan Shazier’s paralysis also happen to be bad press for the NFL.) We’ve previously seen, as Jackson noted, rule changes that get called firmly in preseason and then things go pretty much back to normal in the regular season. So maybe that’ll happen here. Or maybe the NFL will stick with this, and players will just have to adapt their tackling form—which could take a generation to happen fully. Probably it’ll be a little of both. But who knows! Preseason is meaningless! This blog is over.