KRAVITZ: The NFL wants to do the right thing, but will the new rules save players and the game?

(WTHR Photo/Brady Klain)
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Bob Kravitz

WESTFIELD – Niners cornerback Richard Sherman is right: The new NFL rule about lowering and using your head to initiate contact is confusing, counter intuitive and potentially disastrous.

NFL official Walt Anderson, who came to Grand Park Thursday to talk to the Colts and the media about the rules changes, including the controversial helmet rule, is right, too: The NFL needs to change the way the game is played, needs to change the culture and keep the head out of the sport.

I'll give the NFL credit for this much: They're trying to do something significant to limit the number of head shots that have caused so much brain damage to both current and former players. The CTE findings are shocking, except maybe to North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora, who might be the only man on earth who isn't convinced football is dangerous to the brain. (No word on his views regarding climate change, or whether the earth is flat or round).

The league knows it is at a crossroads, that fewer young people are playing the game because of fear of the remnants of repeated head trauma. More and more, parents are dissuading their children from playing, and even some notable former players, like Brett Favre, have called for tackling to be off-limits for pre-teens.

They had to do something.

But is this the right something?

Anderson joined the media Thursday, showed an instructional video and answered questions, and honestly, I'm still not entirely sure what they're looking for and how they're going to call these new infractions. I heard a lot about the "intent'' of a player, which is as murky as it gets. How is an official, who is watching a thousand other things on a football field, supposed to discern a player's intent when he lowers his head in order to gain an extra few yards, or when he's taking on a running back or a tight end?

According to Anderson, it's OK to lower your head in order to gird to take a blow from an opponent, but it's not OK to lower your head in order to initiate contact. In other words, the legendary running back Earl Campbell, who famously lowered his head and bowled over defenders, would have been flagged on virtually every run.

"To be honest, I've heard about the rule but I haven't looked into it; I saw something yesterday on ESPN,'' rookie running back Nyheim Hines said. "I didn't even know it applied to offense. So, like, they're talking about using the crown of the helmet? It's offense or defense? Can you tell me the rule exactly?''

Sure, I can.

It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent's head or neck area – lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent's torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul. Violations of the rule will be easier to see and officiate when they occur in open space – as opposed to close line play – but this rule applies anywhere on the field at any time.​

The penalty is 15 yards. If it's committed by the defense, it's an automatic first down. If the contact is particularly egregious, the player may be ejected – which, by the way, is reviewable by the overseers in New York City.

"That's interesting…'' Hines said. "The new rules are being made to make the game safer, so I feel like we're kind of guinea pigs. I'm excited to see what happens.''

I'm not – because here's what's going to happen. Preseason games, which are already dreadful exercises, will last four hours and the field will be littered by yellow flags. Anderson would not concede the point, but it seems to make sense that officials will make the lowering-of-the-head rule a point of emphasis, all in an effort to get players to change their ways.

Again, the idea behind the rule change is noble and necessary: It's time to take the head out of the game to the greatest degree possible. This won't turn it into flag football, as the hysterics insist. It will – or they hope it will – result in a somewhat safer game, to the degree it's possible.

The problem is, culture changes are not easy, not something that happens overnight or during the course of a single season. Runners have been lowering their heads since the leather helmet days. Defenders have been lowering their heads since the day they began playing Pop Warner. Sometimes, it's to initiate contact, sometimes it's to gird for contact. That's why I'm inclined to believe that Sherman has something of a point.

"It's going to be a disaster,'' he told USA Today recently. "…It's ridiculous. They'll see how ridiculous it is, once they make the refs call it. It's going to be worse than holding, worse than the catch rule. On a good form tackle, guys will lead with their shoulder pads, but you bring your head.''

Several Philadelphia Eagles emerged from a recent meeting with officials, saying they were unclear and downright confused about what's acceptable and what is not.

I'll be honest: I'm confused, too.

Anderson said it's all right there on the videos the league sent to the individual teams. I watched the videos. Sometimes, yes, it's pretty obvious when a hit is a rules violation. You know it when you see it, right? But, then, there were some other plays I watched that looked like routine football plays, only to learn they were plays that would be penalized. I worry about the "intent'' element in all of this. And as one player recently told me, defensive players are going to become so spooked by all of this, they're going to start targeting lower, which puts the knees in peril. Talk about unintended consequences.

Most rules changes are cosmetic and have a limited impact. Others, like the Bill Polian-led rules change that made mugging receivers all the way downfield a penalty after the 2004 season, have a huge impact. This, I believe (fear) will be the latter. Maybe I'm wrong. Certainly, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus disagrees with me.

I asked if the new rule might fundamentally alter the way the game is played…

"I don't see it that way,'' he said. "I really don't. I think that talking with the officials, it seems to me like it has to be a blatant physical strike. If it's just a normal tackle and you have your helmet on the outside (of the opposing player), you're going to be fine, and that's what we teach.''

Change is difficult. Change is messy. This change, this rule change, will be both.

Ultimately, it depends on the officials, those poor guys, to protect the players from one another while maintaining the normal pace of play. One thing the NFL doesn't need is more flags, more whistles, more stoppages in play – and more reviews. Something tells me this will be THE story of the preseason. Well, besides Andrew Luck's comeback, which is THE big preseason story here.

"The main thing is keeping the head and eyes up to keep from your neck snapping or your spine getting decompressed,'' linebacker Najee Goode said. "That's the one thing the coaches have done a phenomenal job with is teaching proper tackling technique…''

Some players will get it, some will take time getting it and some will never get it. Clearly, the NFL had to do something and has to do more to save the players and save the game. The hope is the culture will change and the game, to the degree that it's possible, will become somewhat safer. This could be a panacea or a complete disaster. The intent is there, clearly; whether the new rules result in their intended consequences remain a complete mystery.

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