Nevius: NFL's new helmet rule working as it should

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It was going to destroy the game of football. Cornerback Richard Sherman of the 49ers said it was “idiotic.” And TV rules guru Mike Pereira said it was “almost unenforceable.”


The NFL’s new rule on lowering the helmet to make contact produced some epic hand-wringing in the offseason. (I may have wrung a hand or two myself.)

But as the regular season begins, I think we can say two things:

This is a needed and necessary rule. It is working.

As seen by a guy on the couch, it seems clear there are fewer helmet-to-helmet collisions. Two situations are noticeable by their absence.

First, the guided missile shot, where a ball carrier is wrapped up and going to ground and someone launches into him helmet first. There is only one intent with that play — to injure.

And second is the head-hunting over the middle. A defender comes in from the blind side and ear-holes a defenseless receiver. No place for it in the game.

What’s more, says the guy on the couch, it seems players are making adjustments, getting their heads out of the way. These are, after all, some of the greatest athletes in the world. Of course they will adjust.

Even Pereira has come around. Now that he’s seen the rule in live action, he’s saying “we’re already seeing” the effects on the game and that “I think the issue will go away as the season starts.”

To buttress that fact, ESPN had a stat that there were only nine helmet-rule flags thrown in all 16 Week 3 preseason games.

Hopefully, that is because players are getting the message and adjusting. Because the concern would be that the officials are figuring, “Hey, we made our point early. Now we can slack off and go back to old-time football.”

This is a critical moment. The rule must be enforced liberally in the first game of the regular season, when wins and losses mean something.

So buckle up. It may have appeared the coaches, players and fans were patient and understanding in the preseason, but now these games count. Every one of these calls is going to create howls from the stands, the sideline and — sadly — the announcers’ booth.

We’ve heard it over and over. The Tank McNamara TV types who used to play and now second-guess every helmet-to-helmet flag. “I don’t see how you can make that call,” they’ll say. “That just looked like a good football play to me.”

You realize you are endorsing brain injuries, right?

This is no longer a debate or area of research. Helmet-to-helmet shots are injuring people, disabling them and killing them. There were 281 concussions in the NFL last season. That’s almost nine per team. And those are just the ones that were officially reported.

That’s unsustainable.

So this is an appeal to the officials and the NFL to stick with this. There will be lots of screaming and stomping around after every one of these flags. But with always-on video, we will be able to see the play and likely agree with the call.

As for the coaches, well, they’re always screaming about something.

Actually, that’s too flip. At least some are getting on board. New Orleans’ Sean Payton said during the hand-wringing phase, “We’re going to be better for this rule.”

One suggestion that would be worth following up is video review. It would take the field official off the firing line and theoretically make the ruling fairer.

The caveat, of course, is that the reviewers can’t be the same bunch of exasperating, obsessive nit-pickers who turned “is/isn’t a catch” into a comedy routine. Just take a look. Did he get it wrong? No? On with the game.

The most controversial part of the rule is also the most important — ejecting a player for a flagrant violation.

This absolutely has to happen. Otherwise, the trade-off is simple. For the defender, the cynical, best-case scenario is: he clobbers the guy, gets penalized and the other player has to leave the game. In the dog-eat-dog NFL, would you trade a 15-yard penalty for benching the opponent’s best player? Absolutely.

The fans and the players have to see someone ejected to get the message — this is a change. That doesn’t mean overreacting and tossing someone indiscriminately, but the first gratuitous head-shot guy should go. Immediately.

It may be Pereira is right. Once the season gets under way, these calls will be no more or less controversial than holding or pass interference.

Because for now, it looks like this is going to be much less of a thing than we thought. And, it might even be improving the game and the health of the players. Incredibly, the NFL may have gotten one right.

Now, someone go tell the boys in the TV booth.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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