Greetings from a very, very wet White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, as I await the decision from the Texans on how (or perhaps, if) they will conduct practice amidst Mother Nature's rainy scorn on a Friday morning. By and large, this week has featured its fair share of rain up here, but the Texans have largely dodged the bullet. Thursday was a minor exception as practice was moved up an hour and shortened by about 90 minutes.
Additionally, where most folks expected the team to be in pads once again, the team was in jerseys and shorts, rendering any evaluation of players with a remotely physical position group moot. There were little things of which to take note — DeAndre Hopkins' returning to practice and making a vintage Hop tippy toe catch along the sidelines, Braxton Miller working the middle of the field like a poor man's Wes Welker in team drills, and Jadeveon Clowney actually took part in team drills. So, yay!
So as we await Friday's practice decision, allow me a few paragraphs on a future blight on the league that many saw coming on Thursday night — the administering of the NFL's new "helmet rule," which we got to see in live and living color in Thursday night's NFL Hall of Fame Game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears.
For those who haven't seen the rule spelled out, here is what the league sent out to media types like myself on Wednesday in advance of Thursday's game:
FACT SHEET - USE OF THE HELMET
The Rule: As approved by NFL clubs in March, it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. 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
NFL WAY TO PLAY
NFL Way to Play is an educational series about proper use of the helmet to protect players from unnecessary risk and to foster culture change across all levels of football.
Emphasis on Stance, Posture, and Technique
Head Up and Out of the Way
The NFL even distributed several short videos, hosted by random head coaches, on technique and the correct way to hit under the new rule.
My contention (which I shouted from the rooftop of my afternoon drive show on SportsRadio 610, which you can hear on the new and improved Radio.com app, or terrestrially on 610 AM) before last night's game took place was that this rule was going to be (a) unmanageable, because there are helmet hits going on everywhere on the field, in the trenches, every single play, by the letter of this law, and (b) incredibly frustrating because it will likely be over-officiated in open space.
It turns out that was right, with the one caveat that I am willing to give the league — that they over-officiated it because it's the preseason, the games don't count, and they can at least get some film on these calls in meaningless games to make sure they do the right thing once the games start counting in early September.
Anyway, here are the four calls under the new rule from last night, in video form:
So a quick Zapruder analysis of each call:
0:06 — Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor is flagged for 15 yards on what is basically a routine clean up hit to bring Bears RB Bennie Cunningham to the ground. It wasn't violent, although the helmets did hit each other. I doubt it would have even been called under last season's helmet to helmet rule. From a game situation standpoint, the call took what would have been a pending third and long, and gave the Bears a first down.
0:55 — The Bears have a 3rd and 8, and their QB Tyler Bray dumps a five-yard pass to Tanner Gentry, who is hit by two Ravens short of the sticks. Unfortunately, the refs flag Ravens LB Kamalei Correa for a hit that is fairly routine, and the Bears get an automatic first down.
1:32 — Now the Bears are on the business end of the call, as Ravens rookie QB Lamar Jackson throws a pass on 2nd and 13 into the end zone, where TE Hayden Hurst takes a pretty good lick from Bears DB Nick Orr. It's one of those hits where we've now been conditioned to see a penalty because you can hear the smack, when in reality, it's a pretty good textbook play by Orr under the old rules, and I would say a borderline play under this new rule. On this play, we see the most troubling part of this new rule, where a player can be called for a penalty if the crown of his helmet hits ANY body part. Situationally, like the previous two calls, it gets the Ravens out of a poor down and distance situation and gives them new life. Hurst would score a touchdown one play later on this drive.
2:39 — On a routine 1st and 10 in their own territory, Bears QB Tyler Bray throws a crossing route to Daniel Brown, and Ravens DB Bennett Jackson lays a hard hit on him and take him to the ground. Again, it's one of those hits we are now conditioned to assume is a penalty because — oh dear! — a receiver has been struck with authority by a defensive player. The refs throw a predictable flag, but the replay shows that Jackson's helmet involvement doesn't really fit the letter of the law of the new rule. At the very least, It was another frustrating call for any fans who feel like "real" football is being taken away from them.
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For what it's worth, the referee only mentioned the helmet on the first two calls, so perhaps the last two were just garden variety illegal hits, helmet or no helmet, which is no less disturbing. My hope is that the league is erring WAY to the side of caution in the preseason to float how this new rule affects fan enjoyment and flow of the game.
I'm all for making the game safer, but there reaches a point where making it safer affects the actual game so adversely that the league needs to realize that the game will always be violent, and stop trying so hard to jam a square peg rule like this into the round hole that is professional football. As a fan and reasonable thinker, my biggest concern about this rule is the disproportionate reward for a team who sustains one of these hits. A 15-yard penalty and automatic first down has huge potential to change a game, as we saw last night. Three of the four calls got the the team who was struck by a helmet out of VERY unfavorable situations.
If they're hellbent on keeping this rule, perhaps making it a five-yard penalty may be a decent compromise. I can see this rule becoming something that truly affects enjoyment of the game. This rule is so lathered in P.R. fluff, we can all see the strings. Here's hoping the league goes back to merely moderately watering down its game, as opposed to radically sending it veering toward flag football.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.