NFL owners on Wednesday approved a rule that will ban ball carriers from initiating contact with the crown of their helmets in the open field.
The decision came on the final day of the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix.
“This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to emphasize player safety,” said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who’s also a member of the NFL Competition Committee. “The players’ habits, their reactions, their responses to rule changes, you see it on the field. This is just another step in that direction.”
The owners also overwhelmingly abolished the infamous “Tuck Rule,” which has been talked about around the league for more than a decade.
The controversy over the crown-of-the-helmet hit rule had been growing since the NFL Competition Committee proposed it Thursday. While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell backed the rule, it was criticized by players ranging from current Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte to Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk. However, NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport reported that the rule passed by a 31-1 margin, with only the Cincinnati Bengals voting against it. Fisher attempted to address some of those concerns Wednesday.
“Every step along the way, we have been unanimous presenting this proposal,” Fisher said. “I think if the players knew the amount of time that went into this, they would have a better understanding.”
Under the new rule, a runner or a tackler would draw a 15-yard penalty if he initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players clearly are outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or a tackler against an opponent would not be deemed a foul.
“We know there is going to be helmet-to-helmet contact,” Fisher said. “The running back has an opportunity to protect the football, lower the head, lower the shoulder, as long as he doesn’t load up and strike with the top of the helmet.”
The rule was proposed as part of the league’s health and safety crusade. The competition committee wanted to take away a play that could cause a concussion, by making it illegal for players to use their helmets as weapons.
“We really think the time has come that we need to address the situation in space when a runner or a tackler has a choice as to how they are going to approach the opponent,” Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, said before the meeting. “We are going to say that you can’t make that choice ducking your head and delivering a blow, a forcible blow, with the top crown of your helmet. We are trying to protect the runner or the tackler from himself in that instance.”
The logic didn’t fly with at least one Hall of Fame running back.
“As a running back, it’s almost impossible (to not lower your head),” Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, said earlier this week. “The first thing you do is get behind your shoulder pads. That means you’re leaning forward and the first part of contact that’s going to take place is your head, regardless.
“I disagree with the rule altogether. It doesn’t make any sense for that position. It sounds like it’s been made up by people who have never played the game of football.”
Also, the infamous “Tuck Rule” was eliminated by a 29-1-2 vote. The Pittsburgh Steelers voted against the rule change, and the New England Patriots and Washington Redskins abstained. The “Tuck Rule” allowed a fumbled ball moving forward in the hand of a quarterback to be called an incomplete pass. It became famous in 2001 when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped a ball while starting a passing motion during a snowy 2001 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.
The owners also voted to amend the rule regarding the illegal throwing of a challenge flag. The so-called “Jim Schwartz Rule” will tie the challenging of plays to timeouts. Under the new rule, every time a coach initiates a replay, his team will be charged a timeout. If a play is challenged illegally, the team will lose a timeout — even if the challenge is successful. If a team is out of timeouts, it will be penalized 15 yards, but the play still will be reviewed.
This became an issue last season, when Schwartz challenged a Houston Texans touchdown run during a Thanksgiving game. All scoring plays automatically are reviewed, so Schwartz was denied the challenge, and the Texans’ TD stood, even though the runner’s knee appeared to be down.
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor