NFL's quest for safety is admirable, but will new helmet rule lead to confusion?

Credit: Phelan Ebenhack

Credit: Phelan Ebenhack

Leather helmets.

I used to say it jokingly. Now I say it more seriously. If the NFL wants to prevent or dramatically reduce head injuries or blows delivered by players leading with the head, then leather helmets are the way to go.

No one launches himself with eyes toward the ground protected only by leather headgear. Football players are tough. They aren't flat-out crazy.

I've gone back and forth for 48 hours, thinking Commissioner Roger Goodell certifiably insane and then possibly the most noble leader in the land regarding his announcement that not only will replay be used for safety purposes for the first time but players will be penalized and/or ejected for hitting with the crown of their helmets. And this goes for running backs turning the corner as well as safeties looking to blow up receivers on crossing routes.

The NFL has been dipping its toe into lifting an inherently violent game onto a safer platform. Now Goodell has led the owners to the precipice. A new world awaits. Either that or the abyss.

"Our focus is to take the head out of the game and make sure that we're using the helmet as protection, and it's not being used as a weapon," Goodell said after the unanimous passing of the most controversial rule since, well, the forward pass.

It's a fine sentiment, and, yes, leading with the crown of the helmet is an improper tackling technique. The problem is that the game is not played in slow motion. Defensive players are seeking to tackle moving targets. Very fast moving targets. An attempt for a shoulder-to-chest hit can turn into helmet-to-helmet in a split second.

And look how the rule was written. It states, in part, "It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate contact with his helmet against an opponent." It goes on to say that a 15-yard penalty or an ejection can result from this infraction.

Well, Tom Brady lowers his head and dives forward into his opponents on a quarterback sneak. Does anyone out there think Brady is getting penalized for this?

Of course not.

We all know Cam Newton will be the one tossed out for this.

Being serious, players lower their head and hit their opponents in any number of ways that aren't the dangerous, launching hits that the league wants to eliminate. And yet somehow Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said there were only about 50 plays all of last season that would have drawn flags under the new rule.

Clearly, there is nothing clear about what this rule will become. In fact, owners voted 32-0 with an understanding that exactly how this will be officiated and how replay will be used is to be determined later this spring.

Vote first and figure out what it means later — is this an NFL owners meeting or the House of Representatives?

We all know that a certain portion of the league's desire to create a safer game comes from the massive lawsuits that ex-players have filed against the NFL. And if you want to believe that all of Goodell's interest on this matter stems from that, then fine.

But while we understand that the game has been headed toward a safer future, Goodell didn't have to push it this far this fast. And Goodell couldn't have taken himself seriously when he said, "We believe this rule is going to be easier for us to officiate."

How could anyone think that? How many different collisions can officials watch on a given play and determine that a helmet was lowered here but not over here? This is going to lead, I fear, to lengthy replays as Al Riveron, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating, tries to guess in his New York office whether a hit meets the specific criteria either for a penalty or an ejection.

All kinds of players have spoken out, mostly defensive backs who already feel their ability has been confined by penurious safety-first rules. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman said it will surely lead to more lower-body injuries. Washington safety D. J. Swearinger expressed what many players are feeling, that the league is emphasizing safety beyond anything that is being sought.

"THE GAME WE LOVE IS GETTING DESTROYED EVERY DAY," Swearinger tweeted. "Because of what? Whatever your answer is, this is my reply. THIS IS WHAT WE SIGNED UP FOR."

The search for safety — or at least honesty when it comes to concussions and the medical information being gathered — remains a good one. I think we can expect that within five years the concussion-inducing kickoff will no longer be a part of the NFL. It will be weird, and it won't be as much fun for fans, but perhaps it's necessary.

But the notion of passing game-changing rules and figuring out the parameters and exactly how they will be implemented later? A league that just restored credibility by adjusting its troubled "Catch" rule has players and fans scratching their heads over what lies ahead in a game governed by rules that no one even pretends to understand.

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