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The NFL’s new helmet rule, explained in a 3-minute read

Lowering the head to make contact with the helmet will be a penalty and could result in an ejection.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is aiming to make head-first collisions a thing of the past. Before the 2018 season, the league took a huge step toward reshaping the way football is played when it passed a new rule that penalizes helmet-to-helmet contact.

While it won’t eliminate concussions or other injuries from the sport altogether, the NFL hopes that progress will be made with the change.

What is the new rule?

Article 8 of the NFL rulebook’s section on personal fouls now has a passage that reads:

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

That will mostly affect defensive players, but it’s a penalty that can also be called on the offense. A fact sheet on the rule change was also sent out by the league that further clarified the penalty:

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.​

Essentially, the NFL wants players to stop intentionally tackling with the top of their helmet.

What is the punishment?

As a personal foul, any violation of the helmet rule will result in a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down if it’s called on the defense. The offending player may also be ejected if officials determine he had an “unobstructed path” to make the tackle and the helmet-to-helmet contact was “clearly avoidable.”

The rule cannot be reviewed with instant replay, so any 15-yard penalty or ejection would be final.

How often will it be called?

The inconsistency of preseason makes this a difficult question to answer. In the first two weeks of the 2018 preseason, officials called helmet rule violations at an average of 1.55 per game, according to ESPN. In Week 3, it was down to just 0.56 per game.

It’s common for officials to crack down early in preseason to set a precedent. It’s more likely that the penalty is called like it was later in preseason, drawing about one flag every other game.

What do players think of the rule?

Opinions have varied, though a lot of players have spoken out against the rule. Among the most vocal has been 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman:

Vikings safety Harrison Smith offered another way of putting it:

Others are OK with the change. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the team has never coached players to tackle with the crown of their helmet because it’s ineffective, and that the rule change won’t affect the way the New England coaching staff handles its business.

Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, who is one of only three players with at least 250 tackles over the last three seasons, also said it won’t affect the way he plays.

Halfway through the preseason, the NFL Competition Committee decided the rule wouldn’t be changed before the regular season. But the league also clarified inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a violation.

So it’s safe to say that the NFL’s new helmet rule is here to stay.