PHOENIX – Before the traditional press conference to end the annual NFL Meetings, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher stood outside the Frank Lloyd Wright building on the Arizona Biltmore resort campus, talking on the phone. At the other end of the line was Eddie George, his former running back with the Tennessee Titans.
George had heard about the new rule the NFL had just passed that bars ballcarriers from using the crown of their helmets to initiate “forcible contact” with defenders in the open field. But like many running backs, he didn’t know all the details of it.
“Prior to coming in here, I got a phone call from Eddie George. (He) said, ‘What is going on?’” Fisher said during the news conference, at which six rule changes were announced. “He took the position that this is going to be a difficult thing to enforce and a difficult way to play this game. After a 15-minute conversation, he changed his mind and said, ‘That makes sense. I would be in favor of that.”
The rule passed by a 31-1 vote with only the Cincinnati Bengals voting against it. While multiple coaches expressed concerns about how the rule will be officiated, it was clear from the beginning that a rule involving the head and designed to improve player safety was going to be something NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would want to see enacted.
“I’m really pleased that it passed. It was a great discussion,” said Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s competition committee. “The biggest issue with our coaches was, can you officiate it? The more we worked through it, I think people came to believe it can be officiated, but also I think there’s a real sense that this is bigger than just, the running backs don’t like it or maybe we’ll have a bad call every once in a while.
“It’s really part of a larger effort to take the helmet out of the game. … (Bengals coach) Marvin Lewis said it very well: ‘Two things are going to happen when you lead with the crown of your head. There’s a good chance you’ll get hurt and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to miss the tackle because you’re not able to wrap up.’”
Murphy, who played eight seasons in the NFL as a safety for the Washington Redskins, said the helmet has become too much of a weapon and isn’t viewed by players as the protective device it’s intended to be.
“When I played, of course that was a long time ago, we were all scared to death of being paralyzed. And it was all, ‘Keep your head up, hit with your head up and you bow your neck and hit,’” Murphy said. “You watch now and players have no fear of hitting with the top of their helmet. And you know, it’s not only to protect the person that’s getting hit, it’s the person who’s doing the hitting. I guess teams have resulted in the most discussion is the fact that it’s being applied to runners.”
The new rule states that the use of the crown of the helmet must occur outside of the tackle box and at least three yards downfield. That means a running back going through the line who puts his head down to protect himself will not be subject to the 15-yard penalty. The penalty is a spot foul, meaning if a defensive player commits the foul it would be marched off from the end of the play.
“We don’t feel this is any more difficult than the other player safety rules that we have,” director of officiating Dean Blandino said. “The way we are going to teach it is we are looking for the player that squares up the opponent, lowers the head and delivers a blow with the very top crown of the helmet. The official will be looking at those three things to make that determination. We understand that it happens quickly, but there is an educational process that takes place, and it involves a lot of tape. We are going to look at a lot of legal plays so that the officials understand what we don’t want called.”
Asked about the rule before it was voted on, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said during the NFC coaches breakfast that he wasn’t overly concerned about the change.
“The stress point of these type of officiating focuses are you’ve got to make those at the speed of the game, and those are hard calls to make, and everybody recognizes that,” McCarthy said. “Everybody has confidence that Dean and his staff and those guys are going to work at it and communicate the through it.
“No one wants to be part of the officiating mistake that costs you a game. I mean, that’s no fun. It happens. And no one wants to see it happen. But clearly everybody understands the intent (of the rule). I think the game of football is safer today than it ever has been, I know in my time in the National Football League, and that’s why these changes are being made.”
Other rule changes included abolishing the infamous tuck rule, so now if a quarterback loses control of the ball before he has fully protected it after deciding not to throw, it is a fumble; outlawing the peel-back block; and protecting blockers and long-snapper on placekicks.
The other headline rule that passed was the one allowing for replay review of on plays when a coach throws his challenge flag when an automatic review is already in order. That rule, called the Jim Schwartz Rule because of the Detroit coach throwing his flag during Houston's Thanksgiving victory over the Lions, now states that the play will be reviewed regardless. The offending coach will either lose a timeout or, if his team is out of timeouts, be assessed a 15-yard penalty.
“The sense there is it was such a severe penalty,” Murphy said. “You want to be able to get the right call. The reason that rule was put in place, they were concerned coaches would throw flags just to delay the game. But to not be able to review it was pretty severe.”
The Packers got lucky on such a play last season, when coach Mike McCarthy threw his challenge flag in the season finale at Minnesota but referee Mike Carey claimed the replay had already been initiated on James Jones’ fumble at the goal line – on a play that was eventually ruled a Packers touchdown.
“It was actually one of the lighter moments of the competition committee. You sit there and watch film and watch film and watch film, and they showed that play,” Murphy said. “They show Mike throwing his flag, and then the camera zooms in on Jordy Nelson running over, grabbing it and sticking it in his pants. Players will not have to do that anymore.”
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