Press Box: The Game Changer

Sam Hooper 
Contributing Writer

New rules implemented in the 2018 NFL season have been a game-changer — but not in a good way.

One of the new controversial rules states there is a 15-yard penalty for lowering one’s head to initiate, and make contact with, another player’s head. Supposedly, offensive players such as running backs and linemen will be called for this as well, not just defensive players. Although this penalty is designed to protect the NFL and the long-term health of its players, it has proved difficult for officials to call consistently. Let’s face it, everyone on both sides of the ball lowers their heads in anticipation of contact. It’s a natural reaction.

More stringent roughing-the-passer regulations have also prompted ridicule from fans and primarily defensive players. These calls are designed to protect the highest-profile position in the sport — the quarterback. But many proponents assert the league is getting soft in protecting its big-money signal-callers.

Although this effort to protect the shared interests of players and the NFL as a whole is needed given the current climate around football, the league has overcorrected. Officials are having trouble adjusting to the rule changes and are facing backlash from players and fans as a result.

After the first two weeks of the preseason, the NFL Competition Committee met Aug. 22 to discuss the helmet-to-helmet rule. The committee declined to change it, but it did make clear “that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul,” according to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. This was an important clarification because in some instances, a player would make a tackle with his head lowered, but he would initiate contact with another part of his body, such as his shoulder or arm. Inadvertent head-to-head contact would follow the initial, legal hit.

The reason officials called so many of these penalties in the firsts two weeks of the preseason was because an official would see a player’s head lowered, but the player would initiate contact with a different part of their body. Still adjusting to the rule changes, officials assumed that was a foul. The clarification from the committee at the end of August allowed officials to ignore those ambiguous instances. The officials also overcalled during those weeks to put the league on notice that they were serious about enforcing it.

During the third week of the preseason — the first week after the competition committee met — penalties for lowering the helmet to initiate contact dropped 60 percent from the previous two weeks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. During the 16 games of week three, there were only nine penalties called, an average of 0.56 per game. In the first 33 preseason games combined, the officials threw a flag for helmet-to-helmet hits 51 times, in the final 32 preseason games they only threw a flag 20 times. We now know this rule is not going to hinder competition as much as fans and players initially thought.

But there is another rule that is a much larger deal than anticipated.

A new addition to the roughing-the-passer rule is that defensive players are no longer allowed to put their body weight on the quarterback while falling to the ground. The rule is very controversial because while defenders are going full speed trying to get the quarterback to the ground, they are sometimes going so fast that they can’t stop on a dime and keep their body weight from landing on top of the quarterback. William Hayes, a defensive end for the Miami Dolphins, tore his ACL on Sept. 23 while attempting to avoid putting his body weight on Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

While this rule will protect quarterbacks even more, they already have the most protection rule-wise out of all positions in the sport. Granted, quarterbacks make more money than any other position and they are typically the ones who draw in the fans. But there should be a limit on how many rules there are to protect them if it starts to come at the expense of other player’s health — Hayes’s injury is a perfect example of that.

To make matters even worse, the NFL doesn’t call these fouls consistently. There have been multiple instances, such as in the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts game last week, when officials threw the flag for the foul on a certain play, but didn’t throw it on another where the hit looked exactly the same. The flag was thrown for a hit on Patriots’ Tom Brady, but not on a hit — by two defenders at the same time — on the Colts’ Andrew Luck.

Clay Matthews, linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, was called for roughing the passer in each of his team’s first three games. After his third time being called, the last instance against Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith Sept. 23, Matthews said the NFL is “getting soft.” He broke free into the backfield, grabbed Smith with both arms and took him to the ground but fell right on top of him.

“That’s a football play. I hit him from the front, got my head across, wrapped up … When he gives himself up as soon as you hit him, your body weight is going to go on top of him,” Matthews told Associated Press. “Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction that I think a lot of people don’t like. I think they’re getting soft. The only thing hard about this league is the fines they levy down on guys like me, who play the game hard.”

Protecting the quarterback and having certain rules in place to try and keep them healthy should be one of many priorities for the league. Another one of those priorities should be maximizing protection for all players — not just a certain position — without drastically changing the way the game is played. The new helmet-to-helmet rule is necessary because head injuries are one of the most serious types of injuries, and this is a good way to try and decrease their prevalence in the game.

As the season goes on, NFL officials should become more comfortable with throwing the flag for helmet-to-helmet contact. But the league is starting to get overprotective of quarterbacks when it comes to roughing-the-passer calls, and it isn’t in the league’s best interest long term.

Old-school 20th century football was full of vicious, dirty hits on the quarterback — that was terrible for the players and the league. But the league has overcorrected. The officials need to use common sense when it comes to calling roughing-the-passer penalties — most fans who are actually invested in the game can tell when there is an obvious roughing-the-passer foul and when there isn’t one.   

There will surely be a vote on these regulations during next offseason, but until then the rules will continue to drastically affect the way the game is played.


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