The NFL Is Still Trying to Work Out the New Helmet-Lowering Rule

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NEW YORK — In a conference room underneath NFL headquarters on Tuesday, a reel of plays rolled back and forth on several TV monitors. Around 50 people were gathered here, just three days after the NFL draft frenzy, for a discussion that will resonate throughout the 2018 season.

The meeting was led by Troy Vincent, the NFL’s EVP for football operations, and competition committee chairman Rich McKay. Among those in attendance were six current head coaches; two team owners; several former players; league and union executives; officials; and the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills. Commissioner Roger Goodell also sat in for part of the morning. Five weeks earlier at the NFL’s annual league meeting, the 32 clubs unanimously passed a new helmet-lowering rule, which will for the first time penalize players on either side of the ball for lowering their head to initiate and make contact with an opponent, regardless of the situation. It was a significant step forward in the name of player safety—specifically, reducing concussions—but it also came with a number of questions about how the rule would be applied.

Here on the TV screens was Exhibit A. The first highlight reel included examples of plays that would not be penalized under the new rule. One of the clips was Falcons safety Ricardo Allen tackling Patriots running back Dion Lewis on a 25-yard run in a Week 7 game last season. But as the play was run back in slow-motion multiple times, several participants in the meeting raised questions. What about the fact that Lewis lowered his head as he was about to make contact with Allen? Was that simply a runner instinctually ducking down and bracing for impact, or was he intentionally leading with his helmet to bulldoze past his opponent? Members of the competition committee and the officiating department had differing views on whether or not that should be a foul under the new rule.

In the big picture, the rule change is a landmark one, coming on the heels of a 2017 season in which the NFL hit a high-water mark of 291 diagnosed concussions. Put another way, 9 percent of NFL players suffered diagnosed concussions last season, sparking Sills to issue a “call to action” in a Head, Neck and Spine Committee meeting in February. According to McKay, film review of those 291 concussions showed that 57 of those plays would have been flagged under the new lowering-the-helmet rule, a number that didn’t even include such fouls within the tackle box—a strong indication of how dangerous this specific behavior is on the football field.

But in the short term, many coaches around the league are searching for details on how to explain and coach the new rule to their players.

“When we left Orlando, I thought there was a little bit of a rush,” said Chargers coach Anthony Lynn. “So I wanted to be here for this meeting. I’m glad to see we have slowed this thing down, trying to do it the right way. I think how we are going about it now is really good.”

Lynn said when he returned to southern California from the league meetings, he started making a cut-ups reel of plays to show his staff, demonstrating techniques that would be legal under the new rule. He sent it to the league office for review, and he was told one of the techniques—on a play when a running back picked up a linebacker on a blitz—was illegal. On Tuesday, during the meeting, he got clarification that the play in question was in fact a legal technique.

There is clearly some gray area that will take time to sort out, even in areas as significant as finalizing the standard for a lowering-the-helmet infraction to result in an ejection. During the morning, three criteria for ejection were proposed; over lunch the wording was rewritten. Among the critical factors are whether the contact was avoidable, whether the player initiates a linear posture in which his body is used as a battering ram, and if he has an unobstructed path to his opponent (all of these are bad).

Of 40,000 plays last season, Vincent said the NFL identified only 3 or 4 that would rise to the level of an ejection. Examples shown at the meeting include Bears LB Danny Trevathan’s helmet-to-helmet shot on Green Bay’s Davante Adams and Bengals safety George Iloka’s end zone blow on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown last season. A rule change that will be submitted for a vote at the May league meetings will call for all ejections to be reviewable by the NFL’s officiating center in New York, empowering on-field officials to eject players with the safety net of egregious errors being able to be overturned with indisputable video evidence.

The assembled group met for close to six hours. The six head coaches in attendance—Lynn, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Atlanta’s Dan Quinn, Detroit’s Matt Patricia, Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and the Jets’ Todd Bowles—sharing their perspective and ideas on how to implement and coach the rule. When the Lewis video was shown, others in the room asked Lynn, a former running back, if a back can be coached to lower his shoulders to protect the football before impact without lowering his head. Yes, he said, noting that it’s up to the coaches to change the attitude and mentality of their players.

“There will be times we say attack that guy, he’s a soft player, attack that guy,” Lynn said. “As coaches, we have to change how we coach, how we teach. We have to understand the game is changing as well.”

Quinn proposed that coaches around the league work together to create a set of teaching tapes on safe techniques for each position, with each coach doing the voice-over for the tape of the position they coached or played—Tomlin on defensive backs, Lynn on running backs, Quinn on defensive line, etc.—in time for this year’s training camp. He also raised the question of whether there is enough practice and teaching time to work with players on safer techniques—something coaches have been dissatisfied with under the rules of the current CBA and which is sure to be a flashpoint in negotiations for the next deal.

An entire post-lunch session, closed to the media, was spent on coaching the offensive line under this new rule. That may be the position group with the most questions about how to adapt . “There’s nothing from the tackling side that is different from what we teach, so that part is pretty clear for me,” Quinn said. “We are a shoulder-based, leverage-tackling team, so we keep the head out of the hit as a teaching point. The new learning could be regarding some of the other positions. Where does the fullback put his shoulder in a block? Where does the offensive guard, who is pulling on a corner and DB, keep the head out of the block? Those are the ones we are really anxious to get the right examples to teach to the guys. They’ll get it, but we’ve gotta teach it right.”

McKay cited the introduction of the first defenseless player rules in the early ’90s; it took two to three years, he said, for players, coaches and officials to adjust to it. Today officials call the defensive player rule correctly more than 90 percent of the time. Despite the questions and some frustrations in defining the rule, the one thing that did not come up in the room was whether or not it is necessary—it passed unanimously in Orlando, with the vocal support of elder statesmen like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin, because of the leaguewide understanding that the game must change to survive.

Last November, McKay, Sills and Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior VP of health and safety policy, met in Atlanta for a five-hour session watching three years’ worth of concussions suffered in the NFL. They were looking for a trend, and what stood out more than play type was a recurrent technique—lowering of the helmet. Trying to change that behavior, they agreed, would have the most immediate impact in reducing the incidence of concussions. That, ultimately, will be the standard by which the rule is judged.

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