Is this a penalty? Should it be?

Soon after the NFL rolled out its controversial new helmet rule last year—which aims to penalize lowering the head to initiate contact on avoidable hits—the league realized it needed more time to figure out how to implement it, and for players, coaches, and officials to adjust to it.

“It was a pretty substantial change,” Rich McKay, the president of the Falcons and the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, told me this week. “There was a lot of concern.”

After a flag-filled preseason that generated a lot of confusion about what constituted an illegal hit, the league decided to largely not flag it. Once the regular season began, only a handful of infractions were penalized, while many others were handled after the fact through the issuance of fines and warning letters to any offending players.

That’s going to change this season, the league insists. McKay told me he’s confident that players, coaches, and officials now have a better grasp of the rule, after having taken a year to absorb its meaning. So look for more on-field enforcement this time around.

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“I think during [the 2018 season] there’s no question that you saw many more fines and warning letters than you did flags,” McKay told me. “I think this year you’ll see enforcement increase because I think the officials are more comfortable now [with] what they’re looking for. I think that they’ve been in a position where, at the end of the play, they didn’t necessarily look at that portion of the play—they were looking for the football, they were looking for other things. It’s interesting when you talk to them how they feel more confident now that they understand what they need to look for.

“By the same token, I think the message to our players has likewise had a year to get through. So I think we’re I think we’re getting a narrower understanding of how this rule was intended to be enforced. I think we’ll be in a much better place than we were last year just because we’re another year into it.”

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The league has not yet released its 2019 rule book, but McKay told me the language of the helmet rule has not been changed. [Update (July 25, 2019, 10:25 p.m. EDT): The rule book was on the league’s communications website all along; I was just too dumb to find it. Here it is.] The rule still reads, in its entirety:

“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”

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The referee will announce a helmet rule infraction as “lowering the head to initiate contact.” The punishment calls for a 15-yard penalty. In addition, the league also outlined three standards for officials to follow—

  • 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)

—while also having established three criteria for what warrants an ejection:

  • The player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet;
  • The player delivering the blow had an unobstructed path to his opponent; and if
  • The contact was clearly avoidable

The rule was drawn with a simplicity that belies how broadly it can be applied, for offensive and defensive players alike—ballcarriers included. It’s often routine for a football player to “lower his head to initiate and make contact,” and the league has a history of tripping over unforeseen consequences whenever it’s attempted to account for every imaginable split-second player movement that must be judged by the officials in a further matter of split-seconds. But the helmet rule might be that rare instance in which an NFL rule is not specific enough.

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“They didn’t put in the words ‘forcible’ or ‘punishing,’” NBC Sports rules analyst and ex-NFL referee Terry McAulay told Pro Football Talk last year. “That was a real surprise to me that they went as far as they did right off the bat.” Especially because there is also a separate rule, with a separate sub-clause, that calls for unnecessary roughness for

“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) ...”

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That parenthetical about “incidental contact by the mask or the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle or block” would appear to give players greater leeway to “lower the head to initiate and make contact.” But McKay insisted to me that the helmet rule, as written, accounts for the “element of intent” that McAulay said was missing. McKay said he knows this because during the offseason the competition committee broke down the video of 120 potential fouls that had been identified by the officiating department, and that there was “a consensus” that 45 of them deserved to be flagged.

“There are plenty of instances where the player is really lowering their head to brace for contact,” McKay told me. “There’s a big difference between that and lowering your head to initiate contact, specifically from engineering we saw and the lift that was occurring in the lowering of the head conduct. So that’s why we wrote the rule the way we did.”

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The league office told me that 29 fines and 156 warning letters went out last year for helmet rule violations that spanned the preseason, regular season, and postseason, and that just 19 penalties were issued for all those games. Which isn’t a lot: There were more than 32,200 scrimmage snaps, plus kickoffs, in the regular season alone. The numbers also don’t add up.

There’s no way to independently corroborate the number of fines and warning letters, but my review of the NFL GSIS database came up with 70 lowering-the-head penalties in the preseason—including 50 plus a disqualification in the first 33 preseason games alone—and 19 penalties during just the regular season, plus zero in the postseason. All but one of those 19 penalties (one of which was offset) were called against defensive players. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, during Week 14 against the Eagles, was the lone offensive player to get flagged last season for a helmet rule infraction. This is what it looked like:

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The league told me that of the 29 fines, only three were issued to offensive players, two to special teamers, and 24 to defensive players. Of the 156 warning letters, 48 went to offensive players, 10 to special teamers, and 98 to defensive players.

McKay acknowledged that the officials informed the competition committee that the trickiest helmet rule–related calls involve judging the intent of the offensive players. “They’d always be looking at the angle of the defensive player, and what the defensive player was doing to the offensive player, and then looking for the football,” McKay said of the officials. “Now, they’ve got to look for both. That includes in the blocking patterns of pulling guards and the like. Are they lowering their heads to initiate contact? So I think you’ll see a little more balance.” McKay also said it’s possible a lot of flags could again be thrown during the preseason as the officials get back up to speed during games populated primarily by players on the fringes of the 53-man roster. And missed calls could again be dealt with via fines and warning letters. The league’s hope, after all, is that players will learn not to lower their heads to make contact.

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Whether there’s still confusion remains to be seen. In the GIF at the top of this post, Cowboys inside linebacker Jaylon Smith was not flagged for lowering his head and initiating contact last year against the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, but Smith was fined $26,739 later that week—the standard amount laid out by the fine schedule for a first offense for an impermissible use of the helmet. Smith was not happy about that, however. He clearly lowered his head and hit Kamara, but his comments to ESPN’s Todd Archer reveal the difficulties inherent in trying to police intent.

“As I was going to tackle him he turned his body at the last second and I hit him,” Smith said. “I hit him. I put my arms out to hit him and there was some contact. But, like I said, it’s the game that we love and definitely no intentions to play the game the wrong way. I’ve been taught well.”