In the name of safety, the NFL has implemented a new rule: if a player is tackling someone and they lead with their helmet, penalty. Doesn’t matter where you hit them. You can hit them in the knee or the gut for all the ref cares. Once you lead with your head, you’re drawing laundry for a good chunk of yards. So how has this new rule been met this year?
In Philadelphia, the players were questioning the rule and had concerns about how to tackle. The board that was explaining the rules to the players did their best to support their questions, but if anything, players were left asking more questions. In Cleveland, Browns’ Christian Kirksey said in an interview, “as a defender, in the back of your head, you wonder, ‘if I make this play, am I — a possibility of me being kicked out of the game?’” Seahawks analyst David Wyman was more blunt, calling the whole thing “a ####### mess.” Even, now 49ers, Richard Sherman doesn’t like the rule. “Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you’re getting a ticket. [It’s] gonna lead to more lower-extremity injuries.” To be fair, Sherman does a good job avoiding hitting with his helmet.
During the Hall of Fame game, it didn’t take long for laundry to flow. Within five minutes, the first personal foul for leading with the helmet came out, with three more following the rest of the game. Granted this is pre-season, it begs the question of how they are going to call games. One of the fouls in question looked like the defender lowered himself to hit with his shoulder. Yes, his head went down and forward, but the rule, as players understand, is that the helmet cannot be the first point of contact on the player. However, pending the viewpoint of the ref, even this type of hit can be considered a penalty. Terry McAluy said it best, “appears to be a legal hit…”
While the penalty is designed for plays on the ball, the rule itself is quite broad. A player may be called for it anywhere on the field, the position doesn’t matter, offense or defense doesn’t matter, it’s all about where the helmet strikes. So what does this mean for some fans? Seahawk fans will not forget when Clay Matthews lowered his helmet to make a strike on Russell Wilson. That play would obviously draw a flag and could have caused Matthews to be kicked out of the game. Likewise, if Tyler Lockett catches a 50-yard bomb, but Germain Ifedi decides he wants to lower his head and the crown of his helmet hits the defensive end in the side, Ifedi draws another flag, and the ball is coming back.
On the bright side, it appears that there will be a replay system to determine if the hit results in an ejection (yes, OBJ and Josh Norman would have been ejected for their hits). With coaches in line with the rule already, it appears that they are confident that the replay system would work and that it would be used appropriately.
It isn’t so much that players will have to re-learn how to tackle. They have learned how to tackle correctly. The problem is potentially how the tackle appears and the on-the-spot decision by the ref to determine if it warrants a flag or not. Expect a lot of laundry this pre-season regarding this rule. I don’t foresee it being a problem week 1. For now, they’re probably just gathering video evidence to help create a databank for what is and what is not a foul.