49ers' Richard Sherman skeptical of NFL's helmet rule

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SANTA CLARA — Between the National Anthem controversy, Colin Kaepernick’s collusion case and the new, yet-to-be-understood helmet rule, the NFL has turned football the game into an afterthought just weeks before the regular season.

“What’s more NFL than that?” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman asked reporters Wednesday in the 49ers auditorium. “That’s what the NFL is known for, doing something that takes the attention away from the game. And the game actually has been played great, but the catch rule, this helmet thing — it’s what we do.”

The NFL created this helmet controversy to fix a problem, but seems to have created a much bigger one in the process.

The original problem was simple: Players who lead with their helmets expose themselves to spinal compression fractures. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered one last season. He still has trouble walking and may never play football again. That’s tragic and bad for a league that wants to make football safer.

Here is the wording of the new rule: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”

Seems simple, right? But enforcing the rule in real life is difficult. Officials still don’t know how to call it consistently. Players and coaches are upset.

“It’s an idiotic rule,” said Sherman, who is recovering from injuries and whose status for Saturday’s preseason game is a point of contention.

“There is no way you should tackle the way they’re asking people to tackle AND play football. I mean, I could probably tackle like that if I was standing still and got on my knees and nobody was moving and I was tackling bags or something. But to ask people to do that at full speed is just ridiculous.”

Sherman means it’s impossible to tackle without some helmet contact. And he may be right. The rule may seem ridiculous, but it’s still a rule and breaking it results in a 15-yard personal foul. The 49ers committed two of these personal fouls Saturday during this preseason game against the Houston Texans.

“There’s going to be a 15-yard penalty every single play on darn near every player,” Sherman argued. Then he made an accusation.

“It’s one of those rules they’re obviously only calling on defense. I saw one with (Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback) A.J. Bouye and a running back, where the running back literally plowed his head into Bouye’s chest, and then they somehow called the penalty on Bouye. And he got run over. So, initiating the contact with the crown of your helmet, which the running back did, only applies if you’re a defensive player. Makes sense.”

Sherman sneered.

When he mentioned non-stop 15-yard penalties, he was sarcastically referring to incidental helmet-to-helmet contact. Because that does occur every play, typically between offensive linemen and defensive linemen or running backs and linebackers.

On Wednesday, NFL Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent addressed in a written statement the issue of incidental helmet-to-helmet contact. “The NFL Competition Committee resolved that there will be no changes to the rule as approved by clubs this spring, which includes no additional use of instant replay. The committee also determined that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul.”

Vincent’s statement sounds like a significant clarification of the helmet rule. And it seems during the regular season officials will enforce it less frequently than anticipated, and only for obvious violations. But teams don’t know for sure. And the ambiguity confuses them.

“What do you tell a guy?” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “We’re trying to find the balance of what exactly do we tell a defensive player when he’s in a great football position, he’s standing his ground and he’s about to get trucked over.

“When you go to make a tackle, your head follows. But, we teach shoulder-leverage tackling, so our helmet is not designed to make contact. But when you have a 225-pound man running full speed at you and you are bracing for contact, you’re at more of a vulnerability by putting your chest to the runner than you are if you get into a good football position with your head in proper position. It’ll be interesting. We’ve got to keep figuring it out.”

And once they do, the focus of the NFL might actually return to the game.

Sherman could miss his third preseason game this Saturday with a strained hamstring, according to Saleh.

“As he works towards this game, we’ll see if he can get some game action, which is still to be discussed.”

Five minutes later, Sherman emphatically disagreed with his defensive coordinator.

“I’m going to play,” Sherman said.

A reporter asked if Sherman feels more curious to gauge the progress of his surgically repaired Achilles or recently strained hamstring when he resumes playing.

“Neither,” Sherman declared. “Those things are feeling great. They freaking waited an extra week. I could have played last week. That’s what I was trying to do, and they, Kyle …” Sherman paused, sucked his teeth twice and sighed. “They held us back. I’m not concerned about how I’m going to respond. I’m more concerned with game shape and making sure I can still go every single play, because I haven’t played in eight months.”

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