Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

NFL Outlaws Lowering Head to Initiate Contact

Let's have some rule changes! The NFL is always tweaking the product, but we've got a couple of big ones this year. One of them announced today is this: "It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. The player may be disqualified. Applies to any player anywhere on the field." That means this isn't just a headhunting rule... it also applies to ballcarriers lowering their heads to try to get tough yards. It's going to be really interesting to see just how strictly the officials are going to enforce this one, because it could be a huge change to the game.

The other important new rule, of course, is the rewritten "catch rule." It will define a catch with a three-step process: A receiver must control the ball, establish himself in bounds, and perform a football move such as taking a third step or lunging with the ball in hand. There's no more worrying about "surviving the ground." Under this new rule, controversial plays like the infamous Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson non-catches would now be catches. But if you think that re-writing the rule means that controversies over catches and non-catches are going away... get ready for a lot of reviews again, just reviewed differently this time.


by billprudden :: Tue, 03/27/2018 - 5:26pm

How are running backs supposed to get extra yards?

OLs to down block?

by rrsquid :: Tue, 03/27/2018 - 5:43pm

It's already a rule for ball carriers lowering their head. I'll believe this when I see it called.

by TGT :: Tue, 03/27/2018 - 6:39pm


by TimK :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 6:55am

I wonder if it will mostly be seen as offsetting penalty when ball carrier ducks into tackle and tackler cannot avoid helmet contact. Leaving the penalty and potential,ejection only really coming up for egregious cases of running bent al OST to the waist in the old torpedo position, and the helmet leading tackles that should be out of the game already under previous rules..

The curling up semi-fetal “this I gonna hurt” position seems to much of a human reflex to penalise, but hopefully tacklers will be able to complete their process to the ground without being penalised for incidental, and unavoidable, helmet contacts in those circumstances now.

I wonder if we will see the Brian Cox style neck boards coming back to offer extra protection to players who keep their heads up? Might also need to look at helmet design protecting back of head from the ground - one of the 49ers linemen years ago used to wear a kind of bike helmet polystyrene cover over their helmet. Some rear crumple zone protection might be useful if everyone starts keeping their head up more, and so being knocked straight over backward becomes more of a risk.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 10:31am

Me too. That has been in the rules since the 1970s.

I've never seen it enforced on a ball carrier at any level in any game.

Here's an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBLG33jBM9I

by Theo :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 11:21am

Hitting with the crown became an epmhasis/new rule in NCAA rules and an ejection could be enforced.
I've seen it happen that a ball carrier who ran up the middle lowered his head and got ejected because of it.
It happened a 1000 times after that when everyone realised this is done on pretty much every play.

by MC2 :: Tue, 03/27/2018 - 7:53pm

It'll be interesting to see if this rule applies to situations where an offensive player realizes they are about to get hit, and "braces" for the hit by essentially curling into a sort of standing fetal position, effectively giving the defender almost nothing they can (legally) hit. In other words, not ducking the head to initiate contact, but ducking the head in anticipation of contact. I've thought for years that "head shots" resulting from such plays should be penalized against the offensive player who ducks his head at the last second, rather than the defensive player who was aiming at the chest, but ends up, through no fault of his own, hitting his opponent in the head.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 8:06am


by Sixknots :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 11:09pm

"ducking the head in anticipation of contact. I've thought for years that "head shots" resulting from such plays should be penalized against the offensive player" but a million year of conditioning have said "duck".

by MC2 :: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 2:10am

Virtually every QB talks about the importance of forcing yourself to "hang in there" and deliver the big throw, even though you know you're gonna get drilled if you do.

If QBs can train themselves to overcome their instincts, I don't see why other players can't do the same.

by MJK :: Tue, 03/27/2018 - 11:16pm

I was all set to hate the new catch rule, in part because I thought it would lead to a massive increase of WR fumbles and increased ambiguity about what is actually a catch but... I actually like it.

The chief sources of subjectiveness and hence controversy will be "control" and the "football move". A lot of the catch-no-catch issues seem to revolve around whether a slight movement of the ball in the WR hands constitutes a loss of control, and this rule change doesn't address that. Suppose a WR grabs a ball in the air, controls it, get's one foot down, then the ball shifts and moves before he gets his second foot down, and then his first foot comes down out of bounds. Whether that is a catch or not, would depend on whether you think he had control when the second foot came down or not. Still a very tricky judgement call.

Also, I would like to see a complete list of what constitutes a "football move".

I think this could lead to an uptick in fumbles, but in a fairly narrow set of circumstances. Basically, if a WR is going to the ground untouched, makes a catch, and then the ball pops out when he hits the ground. Under this new rule, that's now a fumble. (If he's untouched, it can't be down by contact--he makes the catch and therefore is a runner with possession, and in that case, if he his not touched, the ground CAN cause a fumble). Interesting to see how hit plays out.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 5:50am

Think of what "football move" is trying to avoid. If you just state the rule as player catches ball and has to make "a move" then he could legitimately say "I blinked - my eye moved"; "I expelled air, my chest moved", "I twitched a finger".

As for increasing WR fumbles - if coaches continue to be as risk avoidant as they've become then maybe they'll stop throwing passes. Perhaps this is what we need to lower the importance of quarterbacks.

by Kulko :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 5:12am

I think the following acenario would now be a fumble:
A player catches the ball contested in the middle of the field. While reigning in the ball he makes a third step and is hit. Now the ball pops out.

Under the old rules this would have been an incomplete in almost all cases because making a third step due to forward momentum would not establish the player as a runner. but now the catch is completed and therefore by rule it should be fumble.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 8:07am

David Tyree reigned in the ball.

I think you mean reined in.

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 11:55am

The new rule will be just as bad as the old rule. The way I see it, nothing has changed. It still involves subjective judgement. In that sense it fails because what fans want is a rule that defines what they think ought to be a catch every time. But that won't and can't ever exist. The only realistic choices are erring towards too few catches (old rule) or towards too many (new rule?).

by JMM :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 3:56pm

There will always be subjective judgments in officiating all sports. The best rule I've seen addressing this was from my old days playing competitive college and club volleyball. The rule for a "carry" (prolonged contact with the ball instead of a clean and short hit) began with the phrase "When, in the opinion of the Referee, ...." Forget about arguing it. You have your opinion, the Ref has his. His counts. They should just be honest and use the same approach. It's a judgment call, the official's judgment in real time is the one that matters.

by Joshua Northey :: Thu, 04/05/2018 - 6:28pm

Exactly. Where do people get this silly believe that somehow you can write the rule finely enough to adjudicate all cases? the referees are their to exercise their judgement, let them. In the off season you can record a bunch of practices and test them on their decision making and the ones who fail can get remedial training, or be reassigned or whatever. But the "catch rule" really doesn't need to include much of anything beyond a few specific instructions and the indication that the ref is to use their judgement.

I played IDK 5000 backyard football games as a youth with no refs, no replays, and yet somehow I cannot remember more than 1 or two occasions where there was a desire or need to go to frame by frame slow-mo to decide of someone caught the ball. People made their claims, someone made a decision, and the game moved on.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 4:26am

So does lowering the head apply to just tipping the head forward at the neck or moving the whole body so that the head is lower than it was?

What happens if you stay upright but you bend your knees slightly? Head is lower.

Am I overthinking it? Probably but that's how the old catch rule evolved into a mess.

by bubqr :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 6:01am

That is already a major issue - Look at some of the 15 yards penalties of previous seasons, and count how many times the defender was going for the chest/stomach area leading with their shoulder before the receiver (often a WR) ducked, which leads to a helmet to helmet hit. It happens all the time. I agree with the players(safeties especially) coming out to say that it becomes impossible to defend with those new rules.

by billsfan :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 9:33am

This is meaningless without expanded scope of video review, and unwatchable with.

by jtr :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 12:59pm

What worries me about the new head contact rule is the "may be disqualified" part. Referees already had the right to eject players for egregious acts--some variant of the sentence "The player may be disqualified if the action is flagrant" is built into virtually every personal foul in the rulebook. The problem hasn't been a lack of rules allowing for disqualification; the problem has been that those rules are applied very rarely and in a totally haphazard fashion. For instance, they didn't throw out Gronk for the dirtiest play I've ever seen, but they did throw out Jalen Ramsey for saying mean things to AJ Green and then getting chokeslammed. And in 2015, neither Odell Beckham nor Josh Norman was ejected in a game where both players were completely out of control and combined for five unnecessary roughness penalties. The referees have been absolutely terrible at making judgement calls about ejections, and the NFL's solution to head injuries is to ask the refs to make more judgement calls about ejections.

I'm not a fan of the college targetting rule, since I think it results in a lot of ejections for accidents. But at least it sets an objective standard and sticks to it. The last thing the NFL needs is more referee discretion in controlling the game, as the refs proven to be thoroughly incapable of doing that.

by Levente from Hungary :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 3:33pm

" receiver must control the ball, establish himself in bounds, and perform a football move such as taking a third step or lunging with the ball in hand. "
Wait a moment. Then jumping up, catching the ball, landing inbounds (so far 2 out of 3 requirements) then getting pushed out of bounds is not a catch! Or falling oob is a football move?

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 3:59pm

Wow. Sounds like a pretty big loophole. Good catch.

by Scott P. :: Wed, 03/28/2018 - 4:22pm

Under the old definition, falling down was a 'football move'.

by Levente from Hungary :: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 4:11am

Surely it sounds strange. If experiencing gravity is a football move, then literally anything can be one.

by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 12:38pm

Instead of "football move" think of it as a "significant move?"

by Levente from Hungary :: Fri, 03/30/2018 - 2:56am

But the thing is, falling down is involuntary on Earth. If you once jumped up then surely you will fall down whatever you do. It is not a voluntary action.

by jtr :: Fri, 03/30/2018 - 8:46am

It's certainly a voluntary move for a receiver to drag his feet and fall over rather than continuing to run. If the NFL considers manuvering to get your feet inbounds along the sideline a football move, then that solves this problem.

by dbostedo :: Fri, 03/30/2018 - 10:30am

Weird corner cases are fun!

What if a wide-open receiver catches/controls the ball in the air, then lands just in-bounds on both feet, and freezes, waiting for a second or so before a defender shoves him out of bounds.

Is that OK because he had time and control to make a football move, even though he didn't make one? Or would getting shoved out of bounds constitute a football move?

What if he caught the ball, stood perfectly still for a few seconds, and someone just slapped the ball out of his hands? Is it a fumble or incomplete pass?

by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Fri, 03/30/2018 - 11:57am

I think you missed the third clause:

(c) after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tucks the ball away, extends it toward or over the goal line or the first-down line, takes an additional step, turns upfield, or avoids or wards off an opponent), or ***maintains control of the ball long enough to do so***

So - the refs are supposed to ponder alternative timelines to determine what a player could have done - so to answer your question - who knows?

This rule is a subjective shitshow. It made pretty much every part of the rule more subjective.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 03/30/2018 - 12:11pm

This one is easy, the rule also adds: "or the ability to make a football move", or something like that. But what if there's no time lapse before being shoved out of bounds? Then you don't even have the ability to make a move before you're out.

Let me describe that in more detail to account for the "gravity as a football move" thing: You jump, you grab the ball, you start falling. You're making a football move, but you don't have two feet on the ground yet! So the football move doesn't count because the rule clearly states first you must establish yourself inbounds. And once you do, you instantly get shoved out of bounds. Clearly incomplete.

The mistake must be you can perform the football move before establishing yourself in bounds. I'm probably reading too much into the way the rule is phrased in the media.

by jtr :: Fri, 03/30/2018 - 8:47am

--double post--

by ChrisS :: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 11:17am

When first reading the new helmet rule I was skeptical it would be enforced as written since it appears to make so many hits illegal e.g. most shoulder tackles come after lowering head and some contact is made with the helmet, diving into a pile head first for a lose ball, cut blocks, .... But it appears the NFL is going to use replay to enforce the rule so maybe it is serious about changing the way players hit/tackle (to be more rugby like).

by HPaddict :: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 1:17pm

The descriptions of the new catch rule that I have seen require not 'simply' a football move but also allow for "the ability to perform" a football move.

Quotes of Vincent suggest that the committee developed the new rule by evaluating how a couple of infamous non-catches can be made catches. No examination of completions to be made incomplete. No exploration of random plays to understand the knock-on effects. No evaluation of the likely difficulties of in-game decisions. Obviously, quotes and descriptions do not necessarily represent the full process the committee used in the development of the rule. But the vagueness of the clause mentioned in the opening does not suggest hope; though generally necessary, it also likely leads to almost equivalent difficulties in play evaluation as those found under the old rule. Neither does the NFL's track record.

For example, I'm concerned by the manner in which referees define a football move. Under the old rule, receivers were often punished for extending the ball and rewarded for tucking. Both would seem to be football moves, both being moves essential to on-the-field ball control, but people often implicitly differentiate actions into 'active' ones and 'passive' ones. Tucking is often considered the later and I would guess the writers of the rule envisioned football moves as the former.

For a concrete example of the importance of this decision, evaluate the near-interception by Landon Collins of Brady in 2015 with the assumption that a tuck is a football move and without.

The best rule will explicitly acknowledge and embrace that there are inherent difficulties in defining a catch. Other rules play a role, instant replay requires evaluation at two vastly different speeds and timeframes, but our decision process is the driver. We make immediate, but imprecise, categorizations into complete and incomplete followed by an evaluation of the complete passes that is different from that of the incomplete one. Identify a broad definition for referees to use and then explicitly different rules to evaluate called complete passes and called incomplete.

by JMM :: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 2:16pm

Did Jim Brown ever lower his head? I recall him initiating contact with his forearms not lowering his head.

by Roch Bear :: Mon, 04/02/2018 - 5:11pm

He did indeed, interesting observation. He also threw off contact with his forearm and proceeded onward.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Tue, 04/03/2018 - 4:23am

Most of the highlight videos of Jim Brown show him running very upright. I'm sure there are occasions where he lowered his head.

The thing is, running upright is sub-optimal for a tall runner and Brown was about 6'2" and 230lbs. You don't get any leverage by staying tall. Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders got a natural advantage by being 5'9""

Of course the leverage argument applies to both sides of the ball so it's part of why defenders lower their heads.