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NFL Injuries, Part 3: Minimizing Helmet-to-Helmet Hits

The NFL needs to take a stronger, and clearer, stand against helmet-to-helmet hits. These are what seems to cause the most severe concussion and neck injuries. Here are all of the NFL rules (paraphrased) relating to illegal use of the helmet. I believe in every case the following two statements apply:

  1. Incidental contact by the helmet against an opponent is not a foul.
  2. The player may be disqualified whenever the action is judged to be flagrant; otherwise, it’s a 15-yard penalty.

Unnecessary Roughness (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 6)

It is a foul if any player uses his helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Note: this is a general and highly discretionary,rule that is applicable to all players and all situations.

Initiating Contact with the Crown of the Helmet (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8)

It is a foul if a runner or tackler delivers a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent, but only when both players are clearly outside the tackle box and at least three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Note: this would seem to already be covered by the above rule, which might be why most of us have never heard of the “tackle box” and “three-yard” exceptions.

Players in a Defenseless Posture (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9)

It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture. Such unnecessary conduct includes:

  1. a forcible hit to the head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder — even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and even if one is using his arms at the same time to make a tackle (helmet-to-helmet contact)
  2. lowering the head and making forcible contact with the crown or ”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body (crown of the helmet)
  3. illegally launching and making contact with any part of one’s helmet against any part of the defenseless player – launching means leaving both feet and springing forward and upward prior to contacting the defenseless player (spearing)

Comment: The rule is also mostly covered by the general rule against violent and unnecessary use of the helmet or facemask. It is applied primarily to receivers or intended receivers, though it also applies to kickers and punters, kick or punt returners, and players on the ground. No. 2 would appear to cover the play in which Jordy Nelson’s ribs were broken against the New York Giants.

Roughing the Passer (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9)

There are several specific principles and examples which apply, but there is also a general rule that any physical acts against a player who is in a passing posture (i.e. before, during, or after a pass) which, in the referee’s judgment, are unwarranted by the circumstances of the play is a foul.

Comments on the Rules

It is helmet-to-helmet hits that the NFL most needs to be minimized. The current rules are too complicated, not easily understood by players, and not uniformly or often enough applied by referees. Primarily, the rules should be designed to prevent helmet-to-helmet hits and secondarily to protect defenseless players. Most of the gruesome injuries that we see are those in which receivers are aggressively struck by pass defenders.

How about this:

  1. Any player who purposefully and unnecessarily (and not incidentally) uses his helmet to strike an opponent in the neck or head area commits a personal foul.
  2. Any player who purposefully (and not incidentally) strikes a defenseless player (including but not limited to with his helmet) commits a personal foul, which the referee can deem flagrant, resulting in ejection, depending on the circumstances.
  3. Regarding a player in a passing posture, a defender cannot violently strike the passer in the neck of head area with the helmet, shoulder, forearm, or hands; once the pass is thrown, and other than for a pass rusher following through on a hit he could not avoid, the defenseless player rule applies, until such time as the passer becomes a runner, blocker, or tackler.
  4. If in doubt, a helmet-to-helmet hit should be deemed a personal foul by the aggressor.
  5. In all the above cases, the referee may, depending on the circumstances, deem it a flagrant foul, resulting in ejection. The league, upon reviewing the film, may also subsequently take this or any additional action it feels necessary.

Current rules have wording similar to that of No. 4 and 5. The main problem I see is for running backs, like Eddie Lacy, who tend to lower their heads and careen into tacklers, and for tacklers who fill gaps, especially in goal-line and third-down situations, by diving head-first into gaps to stop runners.

These situations, however, seldom involve the impacts or violence that we see happen in the open field and primarily in the defensive secondary.

It could be that, to No. 1, an exemption should be added for helmet contact between the tackles and within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

In a previous posting, I’ve argued that suspensions, rather than fines, would be much more effective in reducing such dangerous play. [LINK: Random Observations for Your Mini-Bye-Week Amusement, 10/26]

Rob Born

I’m with Matt: “You gotta make those chunk plays!”


1 Comment

  1. Silky March 8, 2017

    I especially like your number 4.