The NFL's Competition Committee had a teleconference on Wednesday to discuss how the league's new helmet rule is being enforced, and though no rule changes will be made, there was at least one important clarification made.
NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent announced following the call that inadvertent or incidental contact involving the helmet or facemask will be penalized.
It's at least a start. The league passed the new helmet rules back in May, and many folks' worst fears started coming out through the first two weeks of the preseason with a slew of controversial calls that appeared to be biased toward defensive players and overly officiated with the slightest contact of any part of a helmet to opposing players.
A few of the plays flagged for unnecessary roughness so far in the preseason most certainly fall into the category of inadvertent or incidental. One notable instance included the Chicago Bears' Kyle Fuller being flagged last Saturday when Denver Broncos fullback Andy Janovich lowered his head — and thus changing his target zone — to a level where Fuller's helmet grazed Janovich's body.
But otherwise the rule stays.
Instant replay will not be used to determine such plays, although it can be used as a tool to determine if a player should be ejected for the infraction. There will be no wording changes to the rule that was added in the spring, although this recent clarification could help avoid additional poor calls that have to this point been enforced to the letter of the law. That's not surprising given the Washington Post report a few days prior indicating that no changes were expected and that the league expects there to be an adjustment period.
It doesn't appear that Wednesday's call included much if anything in the way of enforcing the rule evenly among offensive and defensive plays. To date there have been 50 such calls made, and 40 of them were assessed to defensive players. In the case of the Janovich play, for instance, not only should Fuller not have been flagged, but a penalty should have been called on the offensive player for lowering his helmet and initiating contact with the defender.
Another interesting call came up in the Tennessee-Tampa Bay preseason game when Titans special teamer Nick Williams was called for lowering of the helmet on a punt-return tackle. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said after reviewing the play that he could see why Williams was called — because his head was in the linear position, which the NFL is trying to remove from the game — but that Williams didn't appear to make anything but incidental contact. It's not clear is plays such as that one will still be enforced, e.g.
Will this make a difference? Too soon to tell. It's clear that this player-safety development, which sprouted up following the late-season spinal injury to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier following a tackle on which he led with his head, is here to stay.
If that leads to safer play with a lower risk of spinal and head injuries, then the rule would have served its purpose properly. But if it leads to touchy calls and an unfair bias against defenders, the preseason outrage from some fans, media and even coaches could leak into the regular season and have a bigger, more profoundly negative effect on the quality of the game.