Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Jun 2018

How the NFL's New Helmet Rule Could Change Football as We Know It

A good look here at the NFL's new helmet rule, which is very narrowly drawn: "it's a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent." This rule brings up a lot of questions. What happens now when ballcarriers duck to gain extra yardage? What about quarterback sneaks? And how will they enforce this rule with linemen, who essentially make helmet contact with each other on nearly every play?

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 26 Jun 2018

21 comments, Last at 11 Jul 2018, 6:04am by Theo


by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 06/26/2018 - 5:27pm

What happens now when ballcarriers duck to gain extra yardage? What about quarterback sneaks? And how will they enforce this rule with linemen, who essentially make helmet contact with each other on nearly every play?


Offensive players have been included in the spearing rule for 25 years. I've literally never seen it enforced.

by rpwong :: Tue, 06/26/2018 - 7:47pm

With linemen, I think you'll be able to tell if a guy is intentionally launching his helmet at another player, because the body language will give it away. Launching the head usually comes with a full neck extension that leaves the shoulders and arms trailing behind, along with a sudden acceleration. Incidental contact won't have either of those things.

I generally perceive QBs as trying to make themselves small to attack an open space (hence "QB sneak") instead of launching themselves into an opposing player. So, I don't think those will be affected too much. Similarly, I think we'll know the difference when a runner ducks to protect himself, which usually involves giving up momentum, and when he accelerates into a defender.

I'm cautiously optimistic that the simple language will be an improvement, but I agree that it'll be initially hard to officiate at full speed.

The NFL can also identify the types of plays that have most often led to head injuries as a starting point. If a QB sneaking a ball has never once caused an injury to a defender, then there's little reason to worry about it. But if defenders are getting blown up by blockers on option runs, the refs need to be more aware.

by Theo :: Wed, 06/27/2018 - 7:20am

There are no commas, but there is an "and" in the phrase.
"...to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent." is one thing.
For it to be a penalty you need to lower the helmet to initiate contact AND make contact with the helmet with the opponent.
It is NOT:
1. lower the helmet to initiate (and not make contact)
2: lower the helmet to make contact with the helmet (and not initiate).

Ducking and getting hit in the legs is legal.
Ducking for cover and hitting someone with the helmet is legal, given you're not the one initiating contact (tackle from the side or "ten o' clock" hits.
Lowering the helmet and hitting with the shoulder is legal. (Seahawks Hawk tackling)

Lowering the helmet, hitting with it and make a drive block is illegal.
Lowering the helmet and make contact and tackle is illegal.
Running with the ball, then lower the helmet to run over someone is illegal.

The grey area is the QB sneak where it can be discussed if the QB is looking for any contact with the opponent. If he is, then yes this is illegal.

keyphrase here is "to initiate".
cause (a process or action) to begin.
"he proposes to initiate discussions on planning procedures"

PS. Headline is 5 characters too long.

by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 06/27/2018 - 7:39pm

There are two four-letter words in the headline. Which do you want to get rid of?

by ssereb :: Wed, 06/27/2018 - 9:44pm

You could get rid of a two-letter word and a three-letter word, making the headline "The NFL's New Helmet Rule Could Change Football. We Know It." But then the two periods count as characters too. Perhaps "The NFL's New Helmet Rule Could Change Football. We Know."

by Theo :: Thu, 06/28/2018 - 6:26am


by fyo :: Fri, 06/29/2018 - 4:28am

How about dropping the "How" prefix, which has a slightly click-baity feel to it these days and doesn't really add anything. I.e.

"The New Helmet Rule Could Change Football as We Know It"

Or you could go full click-bait and shorten it even more:

"How This New Rule Could Change Football as We Know It"


by jtr :: Fri, 06/29/2018 - 9:36am

Safeties Hate This One Weird Trick to Gain Fifteen Yards!

by ssereb :: Fri, 06/29/2018 - 1:03pm

17 Photos Of Puppies Wearing Helmets That Prove Football Is About To Change Forever (You'll Gasp When You See #12)

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Fri, 06/29/2018 - 9:47am

Do people still click on clickbait?

I did when it was a fresh way of headlining, but I quickly learned that that type of headline contained little-to-zero content.

by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 07/07/2018 - 3:28am

Dude, people still fall for the Nigerian Prince emails

by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 07/07/2018 - 3:29am

I was counting the space after as a character too. I love the tangent this has taken though

by jtr :: Wed, 06/27/2018 - 12:25pm

It all depends on how the NFL actually implements this. We've seen them make noise to this effect before; a few years ago, they made a big deal about not letting defensive OR offensive players lower their heads, then only occasionally called it on defenders and never on offensive players. Hitting with the crown has been a penalty for decades, but referees still only call it in "defenseless player" situations, indicating that the NFL didn't really want it called unless it was really egregious. I'm hoping they err on the side of swallowing the whistle on this one. We already see dozens of plays each season where a safety hits a receiver hard in the chest and draws a flag from a referee who didn't quite see what happened. If the NFL is really going to push the zebras to flag all helmet hits, we're going to see that kind of blown call all over the field instead of just at the catch point.

I have a feeling this one is going to be all over the place; I bet there's going to be a controversial call or no-call in an early-season national TV game that will be followed by a wild overcorrection of either way too many or way too few calls. At least until the next controversial play, where they probably swing the pendulum back too far in the other direction. Unfortunately that's just the way the NFL does business, trying to throw public relations bandaids on the latest outrage rather than ever trying to fix an underlying issue.

by johonny :: Thu, 06/28/2018 - 12:41pm

I imagine the rule will be unevenly enforced and will leave fans angry and dismayed as certain plays get flagged and certain plays don't. You know like the catch rule and holding does already...

by Will Allen :: Fri, 06/29/2018 - 1:15pm

If they really want to get rid of helmet collisions , they are going to need to prohibit anyone but the center starting a play with their hand on the field.

by Kellerman :: Tue, 07/03/2018 - 2:08pm

I agree and I think that's OK. Why do we need to have lineman crushing each other on every play? I played at 300 pounds and loved the feel of physically dominating someone with my size, but it was even better to dominate them by using the feet/lower body. If we go back to a land where 270-pound tackles are behemoths, is that a bad thing?

by Will Allen :: Fri, 07/06/2018 - 5:21am

It's an interesting thought experiment, pondering what the game would look like, with no player except the center starting in a 3 or 4 point stance. Bryant Mckinnie played left ot while starting every play with his hands on his knees, and he went 345. I think the 6 foot 2, 320 pound nose tackle might go away, but maybe not.

by Theo :: Wed, 07/11/2018 - 6:04am

I played safety but had some games where I filled in on RT (yes), and always thought that putting my hand in the ground made me more immobile going in pass pro or lateral. As a coach my default was to teach the o-line, but especially the tackles, to be in a 2 point stance, most players preferred that.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 07/06/2018 - 9:32am

You're going to cap player weight?

LeBron James is 250-lb. Kevin Durant, who is a string bean, is 240. Usain Bolt is 210.

Gronk is 265. JJ Watt is 295. Peppers is 290. Culpepper was 265. Megatron was 235.

That ship has sailed.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 07/05/2018 - 12:51pm

How many centers start plays with a hand on the field?

by Will Allen :: Fri, 07/06/2018 - 5:13am