Helmet hits, kickoffs getting more scrutiny from Mark Murphy and the NFL

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb (18) looks down at wide receiver Davante Adams (17) as he lays on the ground after a hard hit from the Chicago Bears defense on Sept. 28, 2017, at Lambeau Field.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Dez Bryant caught it.

That was the conclusion reached by the NFL’s competition committee at the annual league meeting here when applying the new criteria of what constitutes a catch. A player must 1) have control, 2) land with two feet or another body part in bounds and 3) make a football move such as a third step or reaching for the line-to-gain.

And according to those criteria, Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, caught the pass from quarterback Tony Romo against the Green Bay Packers in a 2014 playoff game at Lambeau Field.

“But it’s not retroactive,” Packers president Mark Murphy said with a smile. “We would have scored anyway on the next drive.”

That measure, according to Murphy, was supposed to be the contentious part of the competition committee’s discussions regarding proposed rule changes for the 2018 season. But the new definition of a catch passed unanimously, 32-0.

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Instead, the measure that sent shock waves through the Twittersphere was a rule about player safety that, when the league’s brass arrived over the weekend, was never expected to progress so quickly. By Wednesday afternoon, the competition committee voted unanimously to make illegal lowering the helmet for the sake of initiating contact with an opponent. The rule applies to tacklers, ball carriers and both sets of linemen while carrying a penalty of 15 yards and the potential for disqualification.

“It’s a pretty big move,” Murphy said. “I think this rule will finally help get us to where we’re starting to just take the helmet, the tactic of the players using the helmet as a weapon, out of the game. That’s the biggest thing I’m hopeful that this will do.

“Under the language of the rule, ejection is possible. … I think it’s important to have ejection be a part of this. If you really want to change the player behavior, taking them off the field will have that effect.”

Murphy said the competition committee expected to address the topic by clarifying an existing rule that prohibits contact with the crown of the helmet. Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan was guilty of this for his crunching hit on Packers wide receiver Davante Adams last season. Adams wound up in the hospital as Trevathan was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness and, ultimately, suspended for one game after an appeal.

Here in Orlando, impassioned discussion with coaches and general managers prompted swift and immediate action, according to Murphy, and a report from ESPN said a research-based presentation from the league’s medical staff motivated the owners as well. Competition committee chairman Rich McKay hustled to draft an official proposal that could be voted on this week, but the rule will need further clarification later this spring.

“Hearing the head coaches come out so strongly that our game is under siege, parents are afraid to have their kids play football (was very powerful),” Murphy said. “So we need to take some pretty dramatic steps to really make a difference in the game. I think (Seattle Seahawks coach) Pete Carroll, especially, talked about when he was younger in his coaching career he used (former Packers safety) Chuck Cecil (as an example) for what a great player he was. He would hit the players in the chin and he would knock them out, and that was great football. (Carroll) says he feels completely differently now.”

Still undetermined is how the rule should be enforced in real time, and Murphy said the committee plans to work through those challenges at the next set of league meetings in May. At the moment, an official on the field will penalize a player for lowering the helmet to initiate contact and make a judgment call about whether the player should be ejected.

The competition committee reviewed a number of questionable hits from the 2017 season and determined there were approximately five hits that warranted an ejection. How many of those hits would have drawn 15-yard penalties, though, is unclear.

“There is a strong sense, I think, that if you’re gonna eject, you need to have replay,” Murphy said. “If you’re gonna take somebody off the field, it needs to be followed up with replay.

“In college, their rule is a little more limited than this, actually. It’s launching up and the (act of) targeting into defenseless receivers. But they review everything, it can be overturned. The other difference is I think in college, even if something isn’t called on the field, they can call it from replay. So that’s a discussion. Is that something we want New York, the New York office, assessing penalties and ejections where the game officials didn’t see it?”

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Kickoffs are the next focus area. By moving touchbacks from the 20- to the 25-yard line, the number of kick returns has decreased by 60 percent, Murphy said, but the plays themselves aren’t any safer than before. At the moment, the kickoff is the most hazardous play in football with participants being “five times as likely to suffer a concussion on a kickoff as (they) are on a passing play or a running play,” according to Murphy.

“We’re going to bring together head coaches and special teams coaches and really take a look at the kickoff with a sense that if you don’t make changes to make it safer, we’re going to do away with it,” Murphy said. “It’s that serious. It’s by far the most dangerous play in the game. …The other thing that’s kind of frustrating is there were concussions on touchbacks. So even though there’s no return, looking at what kind of things you can do to make sure people are aware that there’s not even a return.”

Even punts are serious problems in a sport predicated on physicality.

“The punt is the second-most dangerous play," Murphy said. "In terms of concussions, (players) are two-and-a-half more times likely to have a concussion on a kickoff than a punt. … The punt is kind of a dangerous play because anything can happen, and the players are all over the field. We always thought it was much safer than the kickoff, but recent history hasn’t shown that.”

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