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It’s too soon to freak out about the NFL helmet rule

Is the NFL’s vague new rule about helmet hits going to be a disaster? Not necessarily, says retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Chicago Bears v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL is back which means it’s time for severe overreactions to the Hall of Fame Game ... in which most of the 44 combined starters on the Ravens and Bears didn’t play! So let’s have it.


Whoa now, let’s slow down. Yes, the new helmet rule and the stricter rule about hitting a defenseless player were called vigorously on Thursday night, and it was unfortunately applied poorly most of the time.

We saw flags thrown on safeties for hard hits that looked legal. Well, they were legal. Players lead with their shoulders and made no contact with the receiver’s helmet.

These are going to ruin the game of football and it will be unwatchable if it continues, says Twitter.

Take a big, deep breath and I’ll tell you why we all need to collectivity calm down. Last night was the first preseason game after a major rule change. The referees (and the league) are going to want this called more often than not early in the preseason for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a warning and a message to the players that they must take this rule seriously and try as much as possible to not lead with the head.

We did see two instances last night where the defender appeared to lead with the crown of their helmet when it wasn’t needed, including this one, coming four minutes into the game.

I do understand the speed with which defenders must make tackles and the decisions they must make with their aiming points while their target is moving. It’s amazingly difficult and I’m sympatric to the defenders for those reasons. However, I think we did see a few types of tackles the NFL is trying to eliminate and defenders will need to adjust their tackling styles to avoid getting flagged.

Second, if you call helmet hits too much during the preseason, you can dial it back during the regular season, which often happens with new rules.

The hands to face rule changed a few years ago. In the trenches, you were often allowed to punch a defender in the helmet (more like the facemask) if you removed the hand as soon as contact was made. If you kept your hand on the helmet/facemask for longer than a tick, it was a penalty. Also, if the blow of the punch to the helmet violently snapped back the defenders head, it was a foul.

When the rule changed in 2015 to basically “any contact to the helmet is a foul,” it was flagged five to seven times a game in the preseason in the trenches, mostly on the offensive line.

I remember getting a call from my brother after their first preseason game when multiple flags were thrown against him for this rule and he was pissed. He was playing against a smaller defensive end and when he goes to punch his chest, his hands just naturally rise up and make brief contact with the defender’s helmet. That was previously never called and now it was. We both worried it would fundamentally change offensive line play.

When the regular season was upon us these calls magically went away. I’m fairly certain Mitch wasn’t called for one of these during the season. They were rarely enforced as written in the rulebook and incidental contact to the helmet was ignored as a foul. A blow directly to the helmet was still enforced and play in the trenches didn’t have to fundamentally change.

That’s a long winded way to say I doubt the NFL continues to liberally enforce this new helmet rule during the regular season. Will they make a mistake calling it from time to time, of course they will, but this rule shouldn’t fundamentally change the game if it’s enforced properly.

Last thought, I’m not the biggest fan of making everything in the NFL reviewable, but I think the NFL will need to look into making this call part of the review system. It’s reviewed in college, and if the NFL continues to rule on this improperly, it will need to be reviewed (it can be reviewed when it comes to a player being ejected).

As for the actual game and the only player people tuned into the telecast to watch, that was Lamar Jackson’s second-half performance.

First and foremost, this was obviously his first pro game and it was behind a second and third string offensive line. We can clearly see that Lamar has exceptional athletic ability and it’s no surprise the Ravens are trying to use him in special packages, whether it’s at receiver, in the backfield or under center. They have to find a way to use his unique physical gifts to score points.

However, it’s clear he’s not ready for the big show as the quarterback, which goes along with everything I’ve heard from training camp. Lamar made some plays when he slipped out of the pocket and was able to throw on the run, but he wasn’t accurate from the pocket.

Of course, this is the first preseason game and Lamar can continue to improve, but RG3 looked more like the Ravens backup quarterback to Joe Flacco and not Jackson.