Move over, Catch Rule. There's a new Public Enemy No. 1 in the NFL this season, it appears.
From the moment the league adopted a new safety rule related to players leading with the helmet in March, there was suspicion about how it would be called. The wording of it clearly had good intentions — increased safety — but also came with the kind of interpretive vagary to turn things ugly.
Through two weeks of the preseason, it's playing out just as many feared.
First, let's give you the rule again, just to set the table here. It reads: "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."
There's more to it, but players are subject to a 15-yard penalty (and possible ejection) based on these criteria:
Player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet; unobstructed path to his opponent; and contact clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options
In Saturday's preseason games alone, there were a handful of egregiously questionable calls that drew the ire of fans, media and yep, players, too. As Richard Sherman pointed out on Twitter on Sunday morning, asking defensive players to stop ball carriers — both running at full speed — without some measure of helmet lowering feels nearly impossible.
Sherman even followed up on his initial tweet after a few folks invoked the "rugby-style tackling" defense to the matter (and be sure to watch the video to which Sherman was responding, which looks like a clean, textbook tackle to the naked eye):
"There is no “make adjustment” to the way you tackle. Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic And should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon."
The rule was designed to be called against both offensive and defensive players, but the way it's been officiated through the first full two weeks of the preseason, it's clear that defensive players are the ones who are being targeted most.
A few more examples ...
Chicago Bears CB Kyle Fuller was issued a 15-yard penalty on a play where Denver Broncos FB Andy Janovich appeared to lower his helmet to initiate contact with Fuller. The way the rule was written, Janovich — not Fuller — should have been flagged. Should Fuller have had had his hands out first? Yes. But punishing the defender here felt absurd, both live and after seeing the replay.
Another wild one came when San Francisco 49ers DE Jeremiah Attaochu dropped his head briefly on a bull rush but appeared to bring it up into a neutral position as he engaged with the Houston Texans' right tackle. Still, Attaochu was flagged 15 yards for this perceived infraction.
On Friday, New York Giants LB Mark Herzlich was hit with a 15-yarder, wiping out a sack by teammate Lorenzo Carter. Herzlich was said to have lowered his helmet as he came on a blitz and locked up with Detroit Lions RB Theo Riddick. Ah, yeah ... watch this view of it (even if it's not a great angle) and you'll likely see how Riddick-ulous it really is.
Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said he'd be sending that clip to the league offices for review, and we can't blame him a bit. We'd assume most coaches are uploading the bulk of these controversial plays (and likely more, perhaps even ones that were not called) and doing the same.
And we haven't even mentioned the new roughing-the-passer enforcement that was flagged against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday — what some have called the "Aaron Rodgers Rule" or "Anthony Barr Rule" based on the Vikings linebacker's hit on Rodgers last season that cut his 2017 season short. Barr's teammate, Antwoine Williams, was flagged against the Jaguars on this one, which perhaps is only fitting.
All of this is a problem.
There's hope that, like players, the referees are still in preseason form. Perhaps it was a league directive to err on the side of caution now so as to provide a teaching template for officiating crews, who will adjust prior to the regular season, which is very much on the horizon. That sounds great and all, but we'll believe it when we see it. These zebras aren't robots, and they can't just be reprogrammed overnight and set back out into the field.
There are 18 days until the Philadelphia Eagles host the Atlanta Falcons in the opener, and this needs fixing — or perhaps re-interpretation. What we're seeing so far greatly benefits the offense, doesn't appear to be called evenly and stands as a major red flag. Already fans are claiming to be kissing the league goodbye, although we can file that threat in the believe-it-when-we-see-it category as well.
Still, you can't have a game of football where defensive players are hung out to dry this way. In full-speed football, there are going to be helmets that contact ball carriers incidentally. There are going to be times when players' heads are lowered that are completely unavoidable. And if you're going to flag defensive players in this way, please, for the love of all things good in this football world, please call it evenly (e.g. the Janovich play, where he clearly drops his head and changes the target zone for the would-be tackler).
This — not the anthem debate — has a strong chance to be the negative talking point as we steam closer to Opening Day. This needs to be rectified, or the NFL will have a real issue here, with conspiracy theorists surmising when flag football will be the next major rule change on the Competition Committee's docket next spring.