Here’s an example of what might be a double foul
By: Tadd Haislop, August 1, 2018
NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, speaking to a group of media assembled at the NFL officiating clinic in Dallas last month, said the league’s new use of helmet rule is “just another rule.” Veteran NFL referee Walt Coleman expressed the same sentiment in a conversation with Sporting News.
But about an hour later, Riveron, speaking to all 122 NFL officials gathered in a hotel conference room at the clinic, described the use of helmet rule as “a culture change.”
Despite the contradiction in those two interpretations of the weight and significance of the new rule, the NFL believes both are true.
NFL owners in May approved the new rule, which states, “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” The rule applies to all players on the field at all times, and 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 or lower body is also a penalty (loss of 15 yards).
The league insists it wants to be a leader in bucking a trend of dangerousposture and technique at all levels of football. The new rule is part of the NFL’s “Way to Play” initiative, an educational series about proper use of the helmet to protect players from unnecessary risk.
While the change appears drastic, Riveron said concerns about NFL officials’ ability to properly and consistently enforce the new rule are “way overstated,” even as the league ushers in four rookie referees for the 2018 season.
“Whenever a rule is put in place, we have to remember that the competition committee always takes into (consideration) if and how the rule can be officiated,” Riveron said. “So it’s not a problem for us.
“There’s going to be controversial moments. There’s controversial moments in defensive pass interference, in holding, in offensive pass interference. This is just another rule that we’re going to have discussions on all year long like we’ve had in DPI, OPI, illegal contact.”
Added Coleman: “It’s just a matter of everybody adjusting to the new rule, whether it’s the players, the coaches, the officials. … They’ve adjusted to the defenseless player (rule). The defensive backs have learned how to hit the receivers legally. I think the same thing is going to happen with this.”
After speaking with NFL referees, coaches and players about the league’s new use of helmet rule, Sporting News has developed a list of frequently asked questions and answers.
— What led the NFL to implement the use of helmet rule?
The timing of the new rule is curious in the wake of Ryan Shazier’s terrifying spinal injury last season as a result of poor tackling posture, exactly the issue the use of helmet rule addresses. But the league has not said whether the Steelers LB’s injury specifically was a catalyst.
Riveron did say, however, that if the NFL could have prevented one hit from last season with the new rule, he wishes it would have been Bears LB Danny Trevathan’s hit on Packers WR Davante Adams. Under the new rule, that hitwould be an ejection in addition to a 15-yard penalty.
— Should more flags for illegal use of the helmet be expected in the preseason than in the regular season?
Yes. Part of the process for NFL officials in establishing consistency with their interpretation of new rules is working out the kinks during the preseason. (Remember, preseason games are not practice for just the players and coaches. Refs need the warm-ups, too.) As of late July, officials were not sure how often they would need to flag players for violations of the helmet rule. They would have a better idea after training camps and preseason games.
Said Riveron to the officials at the clinic: “(In the) preseason, those that you’re not sure about but you think, ‘Maybe’ … let it fly.”
— Is the NFL’s use of helmet rule similar to the targeting rule in college football?
No. College football’s targeting rule prohibits “forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet.” The NFL’s use of helmet rule is not limited to contact to the head or neck area of an opponent. Lowering the head and initiating contact anywhere on an opponents body is a foul.
College football’s targeting rule generally is about helmet-to-helmet contact; the NFL’s use of helmet rule is about posture.
— Can NFL players still protect themselves by lowering their helmets?
Yes. Key words in the use of helmet rule are “initiating contact.” That presents a tricky situation for officials, because in this regard, they’re being asked to judge intent. Was the player in question initiating contact when he lowered his helmet, or was he simply bracing himself for impact?
Riveron addresses that conundrum with officials at the clinic in the video below.
— Can two players be penalized for use of helmet violations on the same play?
Yes. See the above video.
— What are the ejection and suspension standards for the use of helmet rule?
Ejection standards for the use of helmet rule are as follows: 1. Player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet. … 2. Unobstructed path to his opponent. … 3. Contact clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options.
Don’t expect too many ejections, though. NFL executive VP of football operations Troy Vincent said only three out of 40,000 plays the league reviewed from last season would have resulted in an ejection under the new rule. All ejections for violations of the helmet rule will be reviewed by Riveron or Russell Yurk at the NFL’s replay center in New York. As for fines and suspensions, the NFL will follow the same protocol it uses for all personal fouls.
— What positions will the use of helmet rule affect most?
The rule applies to all players on the field at all times. However, because open-field plays are easier than in-line plays for officials to see and judge, one can expect more helmet-rule penalties to be called as a result of open-field hits.
That leads to the next question.
— How will the use of helmet rule affect interior linemen, especially offensive linemen?
Linemen are not exempt from the rule. So for the same reasons umpires and referees routinely miss holding penalties at the line of scrimmage, seeing helmet-rule violations in offensive and defensive line play will be challenging.
“One of the things that we work on constantly is our mechanics, positioning, making sure we’re in the right place looking at the right things,” veteran NFL referee Ron Torbert said. “That’s one thing that we’ll certainly have to look at as we do watch linemen for holding or anything that happens on the line of scrimmage. I couldn’t tell you right now if it’ll be more challenging or less challenging.”
Said Riveron to the officials at the clinic: “Like holding, there’s some we’re not going to pick up. Some of these we’re not going to get.”
Some wonder how lineman can clash without violating the rule on every play. Again, the rule does not prohibit the incidental helmet-to-helmet contact inherent of line play. It simply prohibits improper technique in lowering the head to initiate contact.
— How will the use of helmet rule affect running backs?
In explaining the use of helmet rule to NFL officials at the clinic with video examples, Riveron referenced a clip of a violation from Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. While running toward the sideline and being pursued laterally by Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson, Elliott, rather than using a stiff arm, juke or spin move, inexplicably dipped his head and headbutted Peterson before tumbling to the ground.
Running backs are still able to lunge forward, leading with their shoulders or arms, in efforts to gain additional yardage. There’s a clear difference between doing that and doing what Elliott did. The NFL has provided a video for further explanation. It includes Elliott’s violation.
— Under the use of helmet rule, will these hits on QBs be flagged more often than such hits on other players?
No, QBs are not afforded additional protection by the use of helmet rule. In fact, because QBs generally experience fewer hits than almost all other players do, one could argue those other positions will be protected more so than QBs. Besides, the spirit of the rule is to protect violators from themselves, not necessarily their opponents.
Just for kicks, below is an example of what the NFL wants to see from defenders who get to the QB. It can be done.
— Can NFL officials get calls on the use of helmet rule right consistently?
This is the ultimate goal for the NFL, Riveron, the 17 referees and the rest of the officials. Those officials have been and are still watching endless video examples of potential violations in an effort to establish coherence in their interpretation.
“It’s about consistency,” Riveron said. “We take the rule, we take the philosophy of the rule, and we add video to it. We make sure that everybody — players, coaches, officials, media — they all see the same thing that we use, the same verbiage to make sure we’re on the same page.
Added Coleman: “If it’s a foul in this game, it needs to be a foul (in that game), and so forth. That’s why it’s important for us to look at video. For us, they all run together. We’re just looking at plays. This is what they want to be a foul. We’re looking at play after play. Yes this is a foul. No this is not a foul.”
— Will the use of helmet rule actually be enforced, or will the NFL try to dance around it?
This is a fair question to ask considering seemingly relaxed interpretations of other protective rules in both the NFL and college games. We won’t know the answer until regular-season game are being played.
By all accounts, though, the NFL seems adamant about enforcing the use of helmet rule. Riveron and the referees certainly do.
— What are coaches saying about the use of helmet rule?
According to the NFL, all head coaches were on board with the rule when it was proposed in March. Naturally, those coaches have been addressing the rule with their players in training camps.
“We’re trying to talk about it every time we see something that looks close or suspect,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told SN. “We had a collision today down near the red zone. I went over and talked to the player and explained to him, ‘Hey, that’s going to be very suspect.’ We’ve got to make sure people understand it.”
At Lions training camp, new coach Matt Patricia is putting a twist on the old-fashioned Oklahoma Drill in order to reinforce proper form. Rather than starting the drill in traditional stances, players are laying on the ground and facing each other before rising to action.
“(We’re) trying to put everybody in a close proximity, kind of a one-step situation that was a little bit more than a set up where we could concentrate on keeping the head up, keeping the top of the helmet out of where the contact points should be, trying to make sure that the face mask, we’re seeing what we hit, and doing that in more of a reactionary sort of method as opposed to a staged method,” Patricia said, via the Detroit Free Press. “So, we were trying to create that, instead of being a staged set up where it’s like, ‘OK, it’s easy, I know I’m going to keep my head up.”
For coaches, the technique is not new. It’s just an emphasis around the league’s new rule, and it comes with good reason.
“I’ve never, ever taught anybody to hit with the top of their head, and really no coaches ever have,” Patricia said.
Added Rivera: “It’s going to take more than just us talking to them. Somebody (needs to) filter it down to pee-wee football. They gotta learn to tackle properly; that the head’s not a tool to be used. It’s about tackling properly and using your shoulders, your chest and your arms.”
— What are players saying about the use of helmet rule?
Depends on who you ask. Panthers CB James Bradberry, for example, insisted he “definitely” understands what’s prohibited under the use of helmet rule. But Bradberry also admitted, “We’ll see in the first game.”
Eagles players, on the other hand, are not at all confident.
“It was definitely going back and forth,” Philadelphia running back Matt Jones said of a helmet-rule presentation his team received from NFL referees, via ESPN. “‘We’re running backs, and we can’t do that?’ And, ‘We’re a defense; how are (we) supposed to tackle?’
“We didn’t get an answer we wanted.”