There has been nothing within the orbit of the National Football League that has created more hysteria this offseason than in the surprising passing of a new rule that would seek to ban hits on the field from all players that utilize the lowering of the helmet to strike a blow to an opponent.
Many have taken this as something of a sign of the football apocalypse, the first of the four horsemen that will carry the sport to its eventual doom. Perhaps even the second or third horseman. But the truth is that we have no way of knowing what sort of impact this rule will have, and history actually suggests that it won’t be as big of a change as many fear (which is usually the case).
That is the position of Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former head of officiating who now works independently as an expert on NFL rules. Full disclosure, he is a voice that I tend to respect as an authority on such topics, and I was even a fan of his while he was still working for the league.
He recently made an appearance on SiriusXM Radio, as he regularly does, and talked about the rule, the passing of which he suggested was surprising but not shocking. While he has his questions and concerns about it—most particularly how replay will be used to officiate it—he tends to think the reaction the rule has received has been out of proportion to the likely reality.
“I see these things happen, I see these rule changes, and I don’t want to call it hysteria, but there is to me a bit of overreaction”, he said. He drew a comparison to a rule change several years back in which running backs were banned from using the crown of the helmet to initiate a blow.
“Everybody erupted when they had the crown-of-the-helmet rule”, he said. “Two were called the very first year and they were both wrong, and there were none called in the two years after that”. The crown of the helmet rule was expanded two years ago as well, and has not had a wide-ranging impact on the game, either.
Pereira did say that he thinks the rule is “going to be impossible to officiate”, and he expects that it will result in “very few calls”, instead seeing the rule primarily being enforced “after the fact with potential fines”, which is how we have seen similar player safety-oriented rules officiated.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did say that he anticipates the use of replay to be a key feature in the enforcement of the rule and in determining whether or not players will be ejected, which seems to be the lone area that concerns Pereira.
There is still a long way to go before a game is played in which this rule, not yet finalized, is implemented, so things will change between now and then. One thing that will not is the fear that the rule will fundamentally change the way the game is played.