Dougherty: Packers taking head-on approach to new helmet rules

Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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The NFL hasn’t even played a preseason game in 2018, yet the league’s new helmet rules already are changing the game.

Chicago Bears first-rounder Roquan Smith is the NFL’s lone unsigned draft pick because he’s insisting on protecting his salary guarantees if he’s suspended for an illegal hit. The Bears haven’t relented.

Their standoff is a sign of the uncertainty about how the new rules will be enforced, and how much they’ll affect games. That was compounded late last week when game officials visiting the Philadelphia Eagles offered conflicting opinions on whether a play from last season’s Super Bowl would be penalized this year.

To be sure, there has been plenty of dissension among players and media ever since the league announced the new rules in the offseason. In simplest form, the new rules prohibit players at all positions from lowering their heads to initiate contact with their helmet (it doesn’t matter where they strike the other player) and subject them to ejection for egregious violations.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams is taken from the field on a stretcher after being hit by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Danny Trevathan.

Richard Sherman has led the charge and predicted that the new rules will be a “disaster” that is impossible to officiate, will lead to penalty-fests, and that good, fundamental hits will be legislated out of the game. Other players are warning that knee injuries will be on the rise because defenders will go for more low hits to avoid penalties.

To their points, there’s no disputing that this change is significant. And yes, the conflicting opinions at Eagles camp are a sign that the NFL needs to get better organized on this with its officials. There’s a lot of gray area here, and they’re about to start playing games.

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But like it or not, the NFL has to do this for the sake of its future. It needs to take head hits out of the game as much as it can or risk losing its perch as the king of sports in this country over the next 30 or 40 years. That might sound far-fetched now, but boxing was one of the United States’ most popular sports from the 1920s through the ‘50s and ‘60s. Fifty years later, it has declined to only a niche role in this country’s sporting landscape.

Like with most NFL rules changes, players will adapt quickly, and this won’t be the disaster that Sherman predicts.

“There may be a little bit of an adjustment period,” Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga said, “especially in the first few weeks of the season, especially if there are flags thrown and teams are getting hit with big penalties. Fifteen yards, those are big penalties. It could spike up quite a bit. But once players get a feel for it …”

The difficulties will come with linemen colliding off the snap, especially on short-yardage plays, and running backs going through the middle of the line and ramming into tacklers. In both instances, players often naturally lower their heads to get lower than their opponent.

On Monday night, coach Mike McCarthy showed Packers players the NFL’s instructional video that explains the changes and provides examples of legal and illegal hits. Danny Trevathan’s egregious shot on Davante Adams was one of the examples for what will be an ejection this year.

The league also has videos, which are available to media online, that break down the rule by several position groups. But the gist for all was clear – players should keep their faces up when making contact and strike with their shoulders, hands or forearms first. The facemask is exempt, but striking with the forehead or top of the helmet, by any player, is prohibited.

The videos show easily identified examples, such as a pulling offensive lineman leading with his helmet when he hits a defender in the alley. Or a running back using his head like a ram when meeting a tackler. Or a safety lowering his head and leading with the helmet when tackling.

The league wants the helmet to be a safety device, not a weapon. So players have to keep their faces up when they hit someone, whether it be on a bull rush, a blitz pickup or a run up the middle.

“See what you hit,” said Packers safety Jermaine Whitehead. “Strike from butt, put your pads on him with your shoulder.”

“We can do it,” said Packers running back Devante Mays, who said the Packers have been running a drill in training camp to practice keeping their head up. “… We’re just so used to lowering our shoulders, and when you lower your shoulder you’re lowering your head at the same time.”

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Among the hardest calls will be on short-yardage plays, when everyone is trying to get lower than the guy across from him in order to win the leverage battle. The videos had no examples of how short-yardage plays will be officiated.

Recently, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, Al Riveron, told Peter King of that intent is part of the rule, so a quarterback diving for the goal line on a sneak won’t be penalized because he’s not trying to initiate contact with the helmet.

As for the linemen, Bulaga wants a clearer answer from the half-crew of NFL officials who will visit the Packers this week to work three practices and meet with the players about the changes. Because of the tight quarters, short yardage is one area where the league probably can’t legislate helmet hits.

“It sounds like they’re going to be lenient in those situations,” Bulaga said, “because it’s fighting for inches instead of (when it’s) first down and 10 and someone does that.”

Could the uncertainty around this change turn into a fiasco like the catch rule has been the last few years? You can’t rule it out. The NFL has botched easier cases than this.

But let’s not pretend the game isn’t already swimming in gray. Holding on the offensive line. Interference on a pass play. Yet the NFL thrives.

The league is right to take the helmet out of the game, for the safety of the sport and the future of the league, which are one and the same.

We’ll all adapt, and the league will have a better chance of going on and on and on.

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