NFL Rule Changes – Some habits are hard to break

In an effort to reduce the number of head injuries that occur on the field, NFL owners approved a new rule this week that will penalize players for striking opponents with the crown of their helmets.

The rule will prohibit runners and defenders from lowering their heads and hitting with their helmets when outside of the tackle box — the area of the field between the two offensive tackles. Such hits will result in a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. Hits inside the tackle box, however, will not fall under the new guidelines.

Learned behavior

Since I was in the second grade I carried “the rock” on the football field and because I wasn’t what most scouts describe as a “make you miss” type of runner, I learned that the best way around a defender was predominantly straight through him.  So as I grew up a disciple of Bill Yeoman’s Veer offense and then graduated on to Fisher DeBerry’s Wishbone at the Air Force Academy, my success hinged on how well I could take on a would be tackler with my head & shoulders.  The key was to punish them before they punished me.

I can’t think of one coach throughout Pop Warner, Junior High, High School and College that ever taught me to expose my numbers to a defender.  Natural instincts lead you to coil, leverage, and explode into your opponent.  So another natural by-product of lowering your pads is that your head goes with them.  Tacklers are also taught at an early age to square up the ball carrier and put their nose in his numbers.  I can NEVER recall a coach at any level of competition instructing me or my teammates to use the crown of our helmet to strike an opponent, whether running or tackling.

Proactive initiatives

I’m in full favor of the National Football League’s recent initiatives to make the game a safer sport.  Concussions and cervical neck injuries are genuine concerns, and rule changes that alter the way the game is played for the greater safety of the players are all well worth the effort.  Horse collar tackles, striking the QB in the head or around the knees while throwing, blows on defenseless receivers or leg whips…they really serve no purpose in the greater good of football.

But as the professional game works to protect both its image and responsibility, the levels of competition that feed the talent pool making up the National Football League (primarily college & high school) must independently decide for themselves whether the decisions of 32 owners should guide their game as well.  Charley Casserly, a former NFL GM and member of the NFL’s Competition Committee, stated the key to the new rule was how it would be officiated.  Another major component will be whether or not it is adopted by the NCAA and thus coached at the college level.

Personal perspective

Having played the position of fullback/running back and actually been in the split second situations now facing pro players, I don’t see an easy counter from the player’s perspective to this proposed rule change.  Runners instinctively lower their pads not only to produce yards after contact but also to protect themselves from body shots, especially in the secondary.  Running backs develop a style; slasher, darter, weaver, straight liner and the like.  It starts on the sandlots and grows through college.  Changing that style is not easily done and not overly successful either.

For all the many recent rule changes implemented to protect against catastrophic injuries, they’re primarily in place to curb an “active” action; don’t grab, strike, hit, or punch in an effort to block, tackle, or deflect the football.  The only reason a runner would intentionally lower his pads (and thus his head) is in a protective “reactive” action to being hit by his opponent.  After all, there are eleven players hell bent on doing just that.

Ripple effects

So unless there’s a conscious effort at the lower levels to retrain the very internal instincts that have made many a successful running back, the NFL will be drafting and then retraining these players on their own.  The League stated that in 2012 there would have been 11 instances where a penalty would have been called over a two week regular season period.  That seems like an awfully high number for such a controversial rule, but I won’t question the Competition Committee’s intentions.  What I will question is the understanding of the ripple effects that every decision made at the professional level ultimately has on hundreds of programs and thousands of players that don’t play on Sundays but someday just might.

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  1. I believe they said in the two week sample they looked at (I think weeks 10 and 16) they identified 11 plays. That’s 90+ over a season.

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