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What is the new NFL helmet rule, and why is it so controversial?

A new rule aimed at player safety is causing plenty of confusion and controversy already.

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Seattle Seahawks v New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In March 2018, NFL owners voted to approve Article 8 of the rulebook, better known as the helmet contact rule, an effort aimed at taking head-first collisions out of the game. It’s an attempt to make the game safer, but refs and teams still struggling to understand the new rule, it’s resulted in some controversy and lots and lots of confusion.

During the very first preseason game of the year, between the Bears and Ravens, refs called two penalties on players for violating the new rule. Two weeks into the exhibition season, the rule has become a persistent bother in every. single. game.

Through two full weeks of the preseason, as well as the Hall of Fame game, there have been 51 penalties because of the helmet rule, an average of 1.5 per game, mostly called against the defense (43).

With each week bringing more confusion, the NFL convened a conference call with the league’s top brass on Wednesday, Aug. 22, to discuss the rule. The league announced later that day that no changes to the rule will be made and replay will not be allowed to review the penalty.

The NFL will issue an updated explainer video for officials and teams in the hopes of clarifying the rule. The video, according to ESPN, will include instances from the last two weeks of preseason games that point out the proper and improper application of the rule.

The league could eventually make changes to the rule, but it is not going away. The NFL has said that it wants to do what it can to remove head injuries from the game, and part of that effort includes changing the way players use their helmet. One league official told ESPN they expect the changes will require an overall adjustment period as long as three years.

The new NFL helmet rule, what is it and why did the league approve it?

Discussions about curbing the worst collisions in the sport led to the drafting of a new rule that quickly went to a vote. At the league meetings in March, when the rule was initially approved, it was laid out in simple terms stipulating that “it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” The rule that passed also made it so that players could be disqualified.

In May, owners approved the final language clarifying the rule and setting standards for officiating. According to a fact sheet sent out by NFL Operations, the rule is described like this:

It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against 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. Violations of the rule will be easier to see and officiate when they occur in open space – as opposed to close line play – but this rule applies anywhere on the field at any time.

A violation of the rule results in a 15-yard penalty. If it’s committed by the defense, it’s an automatic first down. A player can also be ejected if his action meets a certain set of standards, which are:

1. Player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet

2. Unobstructed path to his opponent

3. Contact clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options

It doesn’t exactly mirror college football’s targeting rule, but it does The NFL rulebook take a page out of the college book and be expanded to protect players further from helmet-to-helmet contact.

What’s different about the NFL now with the new rule?

If strictly applied by NFL officials, it could have a sweeping effect on the game. Lowering one’s helmet is an instinct that may be difficult to legislate out of the sport overnight. The result could be many more penalty flags and automatic first downs.

“The crown of the helmet rule got way too narrow,” Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich McKay said in March. “This has very little requirement to it. This is simply, if you lower your head to initiate contact and you make contact with an opponent, it’s a foul.”

But if every instance of a player lowering their helmet to initiate contact — helmet-to-helmet or otherwise — results in a penalty, it’d be a huge change to the entire sport. Imagine if every quarterback sneak was suddenly an offensive penalty.

Among the examples from McKay of a newly illegal hit was the attempted tackle by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier that ended his season in 2017.

Shazier’s attempted tackle is both an example of tackling technique that the NFL is trying to take out of the game, and a play that would be difficult to correctly officiate if it’s now illegal.

The likely result is it will only be used when an egregious hit occurs. But that brings plenty of ambiguity and judgment into play. Earlier this spring, the NFL got positive reviews for changing a catch rule that was plagued by those same issues. Now the league is running the risk of adding a rule that’s just as controversial and inconsistent.

Is the new rule reviewable?

It is not, unless it results in a player being ejected. At the same May meeting where the league laid our clarifications for the new helmet rule, owners approved a rule change that added ejections to the list of reviewable decisions.

Just in case you need a refresher, the NFL’s list of plays subject to review are:

(a) a score for either team;
(b) an interception;
(c) a fumble or backward pass that is recovered by an opponent or goes out of bounds through an opponent’s end zone;
(d) a muffed scrimmage kick recovered by the kicking team;
(e) after the two-minute warning of each half;
(f) throughout any overtime period; and
(g) any disqualification of a player

Is this like the college football targeting rule?

The NFL did consider whether or not automatic ejections are part of the language included in the new rule, ultimately deciding against it.

In college football, automatic ejections — which are then reviewed — are issued for violations of the “targeting rule,” which is defined in the rulebook as follows:

“Targeting” means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.

Launch — a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area

A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground

Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area

Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet

The biggest similarity between the NFL’s new rule and college football’s targeting rule is the last sentence that outlaws the lowering of the helmet to initiate contact. But for now, the NFL hasn’t officially added an automatic ejection, although that could be on the way.

What is the NFL and what are players saying about the change?

The league’s stance about the change doesn’t seem to indicate that they expect a huge difference on the field. According to the competition committee, it would’ve resulted in just 5-10 more ejections during the 2017 season.

The NFL also doesn’t believe it has to slow the game down much:

Players are unimpressed, though. Some of the league’s most vocal defensive players have expressed concerns.

“I don’t know how you’re going to play the game,” Washington cornerback Josh Norman told USA Today. “If your helmet comes in contact? How are you going to avoid that if you’re in the trenches and hit a running back, facemask to facemask, and accidentally graze the helmet? It’s obviously going to happen. So, I don’t know even what that definition looks like.”

“It’s ridiculous,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told USA Today. “Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you’re getting a ticket. (It’s) gonna lead to more lower-extremity injuries.”

Following those comments, Goodell said players reacting to the new rule haven’t had a chance to sit with the league and understand its intent and implementation.

But meetings with officials as training camps have opened haven’t done much to reassure players or clarify the new rule to them.

Eagles players were vocal about being even more confused by the rule after a sit down with refs.

“We were trying to ask questions to get a better understanding, and yet they couldn’t really give us an answer,” linebacker Nigel Bradham told ESPN. “They couldn’t give us what we were looking for.”

In perhaps the most troubling sign of the confusion to come over the rule came when refs were asked about safety Malcolm Jenkins’ hit on then-Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks in Super Bowl LII. The officials on the scene couldn’t agree if it was legal or not.

For now, teams are spending time at training camp going over the “Way to Play,” i.e. the NFL’s term for how to properly use the helmet while tackling, hitting and blocking.

Expect to be hearing PLENTY more about the new helmet rule every week throughout the preseason and regular season.