“Nowadays the whole idea is to avoid contact,” Paul Zimmerman wrote about the rules fundamentally changing the sport of football. In Zimmerman’s book The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Fred Dyer of the Rams said the league “wants a circus” on the field and that defenders, specifically pass rushers, “have become the scapegoats in the dilution of the great American game.” Dyer retired 37 years ago. Zimmerman’s book was published in 1984. Five years earlier, Tom Landry complained that you simply “couldn’t play defense” against top wide receivers because the rules had been watered down so much.
There is nothing quite as consistent in the NFL as rules panic. This week, NFL owners surprisingly voted to authorize a new rule that outlaws any contact initiated with a helmet. Players will be penalized 15 yards and potentially ejected for any hit of the sort. In response, Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger tweeted, the “game we love is getting destroyed every day … THIS IS WHAT WE SIGNED UP FOR!”
Swearinger wasn’t the only one upset with the change. “I don’t know how you’re going to play the game,” added his teammate Josh Norman. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman similarly railed against the rule. And multiple pundits have said football is changing forever because of the way the sport will look once the rule takes hold.
If football is changing, that’s the point. You change the rules of football … in order to change football. One of the NFL’s health and safety executives revealed this week that half of all concussions are caused by hits with the helmet, a number that’s risen sharply since 2015. The 2017 season featured the most reported concussions in more than five years, according to the league. As Roger Goodell said, the rule puts the onus on coaches to teach the new way of tackling and on players to change their behavior. Changing the game is exactly what they want to do.
You should, however, be fairly skeptical the new rule will change the game drastically, mainly because we’ve been over this. Ten years ago, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu railed against the NFL’s increasing fines for quarterback and helmet-to-helmet hits. He said defenders were going to have to come up with a “new way” to tackle ball-carriers. “It’s becoming more and more flag football, two-hand touch. We’ve really lost the essence of what real American football is about,” Polamalu said. In 2013, when the so-called Trent Richardson rule was instituted to prohibit running backs from initiating contact with the crown of their helmet downfield, Bleacher Report asked in a headline: “The End of Football As We Know It?” (Joe Flacco had won the Super Bowl just months earlier, and if the sport can survive that, it can survive anything.) Former NFL linebacker Chris Spielman said the new rule change might just lead to better tackling, something Goodell was preaching on Wednesday when he said he simply wanted the helmet to not be a weapon. Whether or not NFL referees and executives are equipped to truly take the helmet “out of the sport” as Goodell wants, is another story, but this is the aim.
Five years after Bleacher Report asked if the end of football was nigh, we’re back to where we started. Bemoaning the state of the game has a consistent history of aging poorly. If you’re going to sound the alarm about anything related to the rule change, it should be about how pretty much all of the details still have to be ironed out. The owners will meet again in May to decide how ejections would work and what the exact verbiage of the rule will be. That means the owners passed an idea of a rule before figuring out the rule itself. It’s the football version of a movie studio announcing an unnamed action movie then figuring out the cast, the plot, and the director later.
Meanwhile, there are other rules being considered that would have a larger and more obvious impact on the sport, and quickly. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert reported that the league could do away with kickoffs, which the league said produce five times more concussions than a normal play, if safety doesn’t improve this year. That would be tangible. But the helmet rule, for now, is so abstract that it’s barely worth figuring out its unintended consequences. Seifert wrote, accurately, that at this point “the biggest takeaway is mass confusion and angst.”
In his 1966 book Paper Lion, George Plimpton writes about what legendary receiver Raymond Berry dubbed “The Pit.” As Berry told Plimpton, it was the area near the line of scrimmage where heavy linemen roamed. Plimpton said Berry talked about his three career trips to try to make catches in “the pit” as “one might speak of a serious automobile accident.”
The pit is now where almost the entire passing game takes place. It’s not the pit; it’s “the middle of the field.” Short passes over the middle are the bread and butter of the majority of the league. This happened in part because of the rule emphasis Polamalu griped about in 2008: The league started policing hits against defenseless receivers, particularly over the middle of the field. Knowing that bruising safeties were hesitant to leave their feet and deliver a devastating blow, teams began to game plan toward passes in the middle of the field, thus opening up incredible passing lanes for a new generation of slot receivers. It’s a relatively minor change—the sport still looks the same—but it’s possible that a similarly unintended change happens if the helmet rule is enforced strictly.
This is a league of unintended consequences, and smart teams figure out what’s going to happen nearly as soon as the rules come down. If the rule is enforced, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, among others, will have a game plan to get a small edge.
In Orlando at the owners meetings this week, it was jarring to see the positive outlook that owners, coaches, and team executives took toward the rule change, especially considering the reaction of players. Competition committee head Rich McKay said that coaches were unanimous in their support for the rule. Goodell said there was “very, very strong support” for the rule. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said he doesn’t think physicality will be removed from the game, just the particular posture that players take to make tackles.
But here’s the thing: The sport does need to get significantly safer. A 13 percent year-over-year uptick in concussions from 2016 is something that desperately needs fixing. Perhaps the last paragraph of this release detailing the concussion uptick is the most illuminating. In it, the NFL says they’ve made 47 rule changes since 2002 to help reduce concussions. Yet, nothing has brought the number down. And this targeting rule, as constituted, will just confuse everyone until we see it in its final form. Even then, no one will know the true impact until a season is played and we see how it’s enforced.
For now, the debate will rage. Football is an inherently unsafe sport and the argument about the game’s viability always comes down to whether players, like Swearinger said, signed up for a lack of safety or not. It may be an unwinnable war for football. Even if owners and coaches think this rule is the answer, that doesn’t mean it will be applied correctly or consistently. Worse, it may not even deter players from helmet hits. Let’s check back in five years when another rule comes along and we have to do this all again.