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Everything you need to know about the NFL’s new helmet rule

The Broncos will get their first taste tonight of how officials will call the new helmet rule banning “lowering the head” into a tackle. Players and coaches are uncertain how it will go.

Casey Barrett

The NFL’s new helmet rule has barely been tested in live football, yet it is causing great consternation across the league over its implementation.

Whether it is fans’ fear of football becoming a pansy sport or players’ worry over being unfairly penalized, few seem to like the league’s attempts to protect the heads of its most precious commodity.

And much of the concern revolves around trying to understand just exactly what the new rule is.

Owners approved this strengthened version of a previous ban on players using the crown of their helmets to hit another player. The new version states: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”

Given the broad penalty and rather vague nature of the rule, it remains to be seen just how officials are going to apply it.

But there were some clarifications via a fact sheet from NFL Communications:

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.​

Penalties for Violation: Loss of 15 yards. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down. The player may also be ejected.

Ejection standards:

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

• Unobstructed path to his opponent

• Contact clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options

Former Broncos defenders weigh in

Steve Atwater and David Bruton, Jr. - two former Broncos safeties from different eras but both known for being big hitters - talked about the new rule and how it could impact the game.

Atwater, who deserves a bust in Canton bust for his defensive prowess, noted on Orange and Blue Radio’s First and 10 show last week that he hoped refs would be lenient because “helmets are going to be involved” in tackling.

“Especially if guys have their posture right and their heads are up, it’s going to happen, it’s got to happen,” Atwater said, noting that a player like Josey Jewell “who flies to the ball” could get a penalty. “He could get penalized some because he’s going full speed to the ball.”

Bruton Jr., a former Broncos safety, team captain and special teams ace also known for flying to the ball and part of the Super Bowl 50 Championship team, told Mile High Report he believes the onus for safe play should come more from the players rather having it legislated by refs on the field.

“Honestly, the decision falls on the player on how he wants to play,” Bruton said, recalling his practices in Denver where the DBs spent a lot of time learning to “wrap and roll” when tackling. “You want good contact, your head up, your eyes up, definitely not the top of the helmet. And then you hit and roll to eliminate the impact as well as take away their ability to power through you.”

Players taking that kind of responsibility to play the game right and protect their own health is where Bruton believes the emphasis should go. He’d like to see the league spend more resources educating players not only about the risks involved but also about care for their health during and after their pro careers.

And as a player who ultimately left the game to protect his own health after suffering his sixth concussion, Bruton knows how crucial it is for players to think about their health.

“Football is football. It’s a violent game and players need to realize the risks themselves and weigh the risk versus reward,” Bruton said.

But, like Atwater, Bruton doesn’t want football to be fundamentally changed or the game to continue favoring the offense by mostly penalizing the defense.

“Everybody has heard ‘tackle with your head up’ since PeeWee days. The NFL can only do so much,” Bruton reiterate. “It really falls on the players to eliminate the use of the head because of the danger for multiple concussions or other injuries.”

Atwater sees it the same way and hopes refs will come together on how they apply the rule and then do it consistently throughout the season. He’s not convinced that will happen.

“Yeah, I don’t think anyone wants the game to continue on and guys who get done playing have issues with concussions, but we want to see consistency,” Atwater said. “You talk about a rule, if you see a guy keep his head up and still get flagged for it, that’s a problem.”

So, just what IS the new helmet rule?

This explainer from SBNation is a nice overview of just what the rule is attempting to do and how it would have applied to previous big hits.

The rationale behind the rule is legit.

The number of concussions suffered by players were up 16 percent in 2017 and included an unforgettable collision involving Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier that ended in a serious spinal cord injury to Shazier that he is still recovering from.

Players reportedly suffered 281 concussions during the preseason and regular season last year - up from the 243 diagnosed concussions in 2016 - which is the second highest total since 2012 when there were 261 concussions.

And as the Wall Street Journal aptly pointed out, the fact that the NFL is taking head injuries seriously via rule changes is in part a response to public backlash for having virtually ignored it for decades.

“The NFL has been assailed for years over safety issues, particularly pertaining to head injuries. These issues have cost the league big bucks: The league committed an estimated billion dollars to an ongoing settlement with former players over neurocognitive issues. They also have also created a headwind for the game’s long-term future, with concerns beginning at the youth levels of the sport.”

Last week, officials in Denver spoke about the new helmet rule and how they are going to (attempt to) approach it this season.

“We’re trying to make this game safer. That’s what we do, we want to definitely call it,” said NFL line judge Julian Mapp, adding that they have watched film over and over with officials pointing out what is a foul. “We want it to be lowering the head and initiating contact. Maybe a little judgment may come in when you’re bracing for contact. It may be human nature, like ‘Someone’s about to hit me, I’m going to go like this a little bit,’ but you’ll notice, my head may be going down, but I’m not initiating contact to you. That’s maybe where a little judgment comes in.”

Mapp tried to clarify how the rule could/would be applied in different scenarios. It’s somewhat helpful.

In the trenches:

“If we actually can see the offensive linemen or defensive linemen with their head, lunge like that, that’s a foul. A lot of stuff goes on tackle to tackle, but again, a lot of times you may see it clearer on a tackle pulling or a linebacker coming up into a hole. You may see someone lowering his head and making contact. The key is lowering the head and actually delivering a blow.”

A linebacker and a running back colliding into each other helmet first:

“If you have two guys come in like rams, hitting each other like that, then you can have a foul on both players. What we’re trying to do is definitely make the game - I know it’s an adjustment - making the game safer for the players. ...I imagine that it is a learning adjustment as it was maybe about eight or nine years ago when we came out with the defenseless receiver [penalty]. Everybody knows [what happens] if the receiver gets hit right here (points to upper body area) so it’s an adjustment. The main thing is just trying to make this game safer.”

On when a quarterback lowers his helmet when ‘giving himself up’:

“The judgement is that if a player was bracing himself for contact, it’s not a foul. But if he’s delivering, initiating the contact…If the quarterback is going up - we have some big quarterbacks - if he’s going in and he’s trying to get that last yard and you can actually see his head go down and he goes into the chest of a linebacker, that’s a foul.”

On determining when a defender’s body weight is more than half way on a quarterback after a tackle:

“We’re looking for what we call a ‘Gator Roll.’ We want you to take your weight off of the quarterback. ...when they tackle their quarterback and you see their hands in the air like this, that does not take them off. A lot of the time they think, ‘Well my hands weren’t on them.’ But it’s the body weight. So, basically [officials are] looking for some type of roll [that they’re] trying to keep all of their body weight off of the quarterback.”

The ultimate test on what kind of impact this rule has on the game will come throughout the season as officials and teams get used to making those “judgment calls.”

How will this rule impact Broncos’ play?

Although Broncos’ coach Vance Joseph isn’t sure how it will be applied, he has always taught “eyes up” on tackling and understands the reason behind the rule.

“They want the spearing out of the game. They want the body position when they’re slinging it out of the game,” Joseph said, adding he agrees the rule is for the safety of the game and that’s a good thing. “Obviously, the spearing with the helmet has been a bad deal for a long time. That’s what they want out of the game. Again, it’s for the betterment of the game, so I’m with it.”

The coach also pointed out that it’s the same rule for all teams, so everyone is going to be getting used to it - and he knows there will likely be a lot more flags early in the season as officials figure it out.

“Again, for defenders, it’s been coached their entire lives. See what you hit, keep your head up and don’t spear anyone. You can hurt that person and you can hurt yourself,” Joseph said. “As an offensive ball-carrier, it’s going to be different. As an offensive lineman pulling, it’s going to be different. We’ll see.”

Chris Harris Jr. thinks the rule will definitely impact how players play the game because they’ll have to think about how they are tackling.

“I know we’re going to preach and practice hitting low and try to hit with our eyes up. I see that’s going to be a huge problem this year just because the NFL is so violent,” Harris Jr. said, adding it’s hard to slow down. “Someone runs a slant down the middle of the field, it’s hard to tell a safety to slow down and not try to kill that guy. It’s going to be a huge impact, I think. Guys have to be slower and think about how they are going to tackle now.”

But Von Miller doesn’t think it will affect his game too much as he prefers to go for the ball rather than the quarterback.

“For me, I don’t think anything really changes. That doesn’t affect my game. I don’t really tackle quarterbacks with all of my weight anyway. With all 185 pounds, no I wouldn’t do a quarterback like that,” Miller said laughing. “I like going for the ball. If you’ve seen me play over the years, I’m not really a lower-the-head [player] or really trying to hurt a quarterback. The most I’ll do to a quarterback is fake handshakes.”

Still, Joseph remains skeptical and hopes the rule enforces safety but doesn’t result in constant calls.

“We don’t want those plays when guys are getting hit with the helmet. It’s not a weapon, it’s for protection,” he emphasized. “But I don’t want to get to the point where every hard hit is a penalty. I don’t want to go there. It’s football. That’s my concern. Every hard, clean hit cannot be a penalty. That’s my concern.”


Thoughts on the new helmet rule?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Love it - need to make this game safer for players
    (19 votes)
  • 20%
    Hate it - is this flag football now?
    (49 votes)
  • 15%
    I’m with David Bruton - this isn’t the best way for the league to address head injuries.
    (38 votes)
  • 51%
    I’m with Steve Atwater - mostly worried about how refs will call this consistently.
    (124 votes)
  • 4%
    "j-mac31" (some but not all of the above)
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    "Shasta" (another brilliant idea)
    (0 votes)
242 votes total Vote Now