Niyo: New NFL helmet rule has everyone's head spinning

John Niyo
The Detroit News
This sack of Lions quarterback Jake Rudock in the second quarter in Friday's preseason game was negated after the Giants' Mark Herzlich (44) was flagged for initiated contact with his helmet.

Allen Park — They’re all playing head games now.

And in a summer that began with NFL owners putting hand over heart and making a big show of solidarity — before a change of heart on their ill-fated national anthem policy left everyone ducking for cover — this latest snafu is starting to feel like a page ripped from the same playbook.

The new, so-called “helmet rule” already is being panned by players and fans alike, while coaches bite their tongues. And for a league that struggles so mightily with self-reflection, you can already see where this is headed, even before the instigator-in-chief in the White House decides to weigh in on the debate.

Four-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman called it “idiotic” over the weekend after his San Francisco 49ers were flagged twice more for violating Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8, which sounds simple enough in black-and-white: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”

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On the field of play, at game speed, it seems much less simple, however, and Sherman, who also called for the rule to be “dismissed immediately” on Twitter, isn’t the only one ranting and raving about it. Halfway through the preseason, we’ve seen 48 flags in 31 games for helmet-rule penalties — not including Monday night’s Colts-Ravens game — and several have left people shaking their heads in bewilderment.

This is hardly unexpected, as the league instructs officials to throw flags first and ask questions later with a newly implemented rule during preseason games.

Precautionary measure

Likewise, it’s easy to see this as a well-intentioned effort by the league, trying to eliminate some of the most dangerous hits in the game, like the one that left Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier temporarily paralyzed last December.

But the real worry here isn’t so much what Sherman’s saying — “Will be flag football soon,” he tweeted — but rather what we’re all seeing. Or not seeing. And what we can all see coming soon enough: Controversy.

“For the players, we’re in a situation where I think you’re at the mercy of the referees,” Lions safety Glover Quin said Monday. “Because I’ve seen some plays that have been called penalties that look like good plays. And I’ve seen some plays that haven’t been called that (should be.) As I’m watching some of the games, I’m like, ‘Oh, that should be a penalty!’ And no flag. So, ‘OK, well, I guess that was legal.’”

Other times, Quin says he finds himself saying, “Oh, that was a good hit,” only to see it called a penalty, which leads him to react like any other NFL fan would: “Oh, really?”

That’s also the sanitized version of what Giants coach Pat Shurmur was saying on the sidelines Friday night at Ford Field after one of his players — linebacker Mark Herzlich — was flagged for lowering his head to initiate contact late in the second quarter.

The penalty negated a third-down sack of Lions backup Jake Rudock, keeping a Detroit drive alive, so Shurmur was angry in the moment for obvious reasons. But he was still grumbling Saturday after going over the game film that showed, if anything, it was the Lions’ Theo Riddick who lowered his helmet as he tried to pick up the blitzing linebacker on the third-down play.

“I have a very strong opinion of that play,” Shurmur told reporters on a conference call Saturday. “We’re going to send that in to get evaluated, and we’ll see what they say.”

Lions head coach Matt Patricia wouldn’t say exactly what he saw on the play, when asked about it Monday. (“That’s what they called,” he shrugged.) But regardless, it’s another one he says he’ll go over with his players.

“I think they’re all teaching points, whether they’re for us or against us,” Patricia said. “We’re going to try to do the best we can to educate the guys on all the different things that the officials see.”

It’s easier said than done, of course. Players have been taught the proper way to tackle — eyes up, head up — for years now. And as Quin points out, “I get no joy out of taking my head and hitting it up against somebody else’s head.” But the speed of the game — and the collisions in it — aren’t easily replicated in a classroom.

A fine line

And while it’s easy to say these preseason games don’t count, don’t tell that to the players getting flagged. Veteran safety Shamarko Thomas, who got ejected from the Colts’ preseason opener for an illegal helmet hit, was fined $26,739 (the minimum for a first offense) and then cut by Indianapolis two days later. (He has since signed on with Denver.)

“Fines are for real,” Quin said. “They count. It’s a lot of money. And it carries over. So if you get one now in the preseason, then you’re already a first(-time) offender.”

Fines double for a second offense, and after that, Quin adds, “Who knows? I mean, you can get suspended.”

And it doesn’t require any suspension of belief to imagine this rule becoming a disaster once the regular season kicks off. The “catch rule” was one thing. But this? The NFL’s vice president of officiating, Al Riveron, put out a video to help clarify the “Use of Helmet” interpretations last week. But that only added to the confusion, so he had to post another video with graphics and animation hours later.

Yet there was 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on Saturday after a game against Houston, saying, ”I think a lot of people don’t (understand the rule), so we’re all still trying to figure it out. I think I feel the exact same way most people do.”

“We’re all just hoping we eventually fix this,” he added.

Adding replay review to cover the rule is one possible solution, I suppose. But flagging offensive players when they lower their helmet to initiate contact wouldn’t hurt, either. This new helmet rule is supposed to apply to players on both sides of the ball, but the deck has been stacked against defensive players for so long that when I asked Quin on Monday whether he thought it’ll get called both ways, he just smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing to choose his words carefully. “It’s an offensive game, so we’ll see.”

Problem is, I think what we’re seeing is what we’ll get.