NFL's helmet rule will leave players, refs, fans scratching their heads

Credit: Max Faulkner

Credit: Max Faulkner

On the screens rimming a Renaissance ballroom Friday, Ezekiel Elliott hits the line, veers right and is loose. Twenty yards later, Patrick Peterson finally catches up. A moment before the Cowboy and Cardinal grapple and tumble to the turf, Elliott greets Peterson in his customary manner, helmet to helmet.

Blink, and you miss it. So Al Riveron shows it twice.

"That," the chief of NFL officials tells his 122 colleagues, "is a foul."

Or at least it will be this fall. Good luck with that, Al.

No sooner does the NFL rid itself of its patently ridiculous requirements for a catch than it creates a whole new calculus certain to infuriate players, coaches and fans alike, at least in the short term. The problem isn't intent. The new rule against initiating contact with your head is one of several changes instigated in the best interests of player safety after a "call to action" by the league's chief medical officer, citing 291 diagnosed concussions last season alone.

"This is a culture change," Riveron tells his peers at the NFL Officiating Clinic this weekend. "This all about changing future generations of football players.

"No, I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid. This is reality."

The problem is, even when you're doing the right thing, which is not always the case with the NFL, it can be a hard sell. Especially when it doesn't seem like football anymore.

First, a little background: The tipping point came last year, when the NFL's billion dollar settlement with former players became official. Of course, you're excused if you still can't take the league seriously. A filing this spring from some of those same players indicated only 156 payments had been met, roughly a quarter of projections.

But at least the NFL has real doctors in charge these days. Allen Sills, chief medical officer, doesn't fight facts like his infamous predecessor, Elliot Pellman. Calling for immediate action in February, Sills told a medical group that 9 percent of NFL players were diagnosed with concussions last season, up 16 percent from 2016.

As a result, the league came up with new rules and interpretations for 2018. For instance, with studies indicating concussions are five times more likely on kickoff returns, the league has done everything in its power to make them practically impossible. If that doesn't help drive down the numbers, Packers president Mark Murphy told reporters at the owners' meetings this spring, "We're going to do away" with returns.

Also: Maybe you remember in 2015, when Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks rode Tony Romo into the ground and essentially into retirement. Perfectly legal hit. Not anymore. Can't put your body weight on a quarterback when he hits the ground.

"You're not gonna be popular when you go to training camp and show them this," Riveron tells his officials. "You're not.

"Player safety is number one, number one, number one."

No one in possession of a conscience could argue with the sentiment. But it's one thing to try to do what's best for players, and it's another to police it.

Take the new helmet rule. Pretty simple, at least by definition. It's a foul if a player "lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent."

The problem for officials will be determining the difference between a player who's simply lowering his helmet to defend himself — not a penalty — and one with malevolent desires.

And then there's this: The new helmet rule isn't limited to Zeke Elliott head-butting Patrick Peterson. It's on everyone. Even the linemen.

And how do you stop linemen from using their helmets?

Geoff Schwartz, a former NFL guard, told Deadspin last month it'll mean the end of the three-point stance. Linemen on both sides would simply start out straight up, a boon for offenses.

"That seems to be the way they want this to go," Schwartz told Deadspin. "I just worry that that change will fundamentally change the game."

In order to survive or at least avoid further billion dollar settlements, maybe the game needs fundamental change. Maybe this is the first step. But if you're a coach or a player or a fan of the game as is, this won't go over well.

Especially if it's one of your players who gets ejected for lowering his helmet.

The way Riveron explains it to his guys Friday, it's on the officials to decide if it's a premeditated act. Like intentional grounding.

Did a player have time and distance to make a different decision before he put his helmet down and initiated contact?

Riveron tells his guys to prepare for the uproar in preseason games when they toss a player for something he's done since Pop Warner.

Coach: "What do you want him to do?"

Official: "Well, he can't do that."

Chances are you'd like a better explanation. Good luck. This is where football is headed, ready or not.