The N.F.L. reaffirmed on Wednesday that there would be no going back on the league’s reworked rule for use of a helmet to initiate contact. The players, many of whom have been less than thrilled with the change, will simply have to adjust.
The altered rule, which forbids players from lowering their head before contact with another player, has been met with intense criticism from players, coaches and the news media. Some, including Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, have indicated that the rule could have drastic effects on the future of the game if it was not reworked.
In response, Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, issued a statement on Wednesday saying the league’s competition committee had met and decided no changes to the rule were necessary. His statement did, however, clarify one aspect of the rule that may ease some of the complaints.
“The 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,” Vincent’s statement said. “The committee also determined that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or face mask is not a foul.”
The league is undoubtedly hoping the re-emphasis on intentional contact, rather than inadvertent contact, will alleviate worries about the change, though an officiating video released by the league last week seemed to indicate that the referees would mostly be focusing on a player’s posture, and what parts of the body make contact, when determining whether the play is illegal.
In the video Al Riveron, the N.F.L.’s senior vice president of officiating, affirms that the ejection of Shamarko Thomas of the Indianapolis Colts for an illegal hit on David Moore of the Seattle Seahawks was correct. He also details various plays from the first week of exhibition games, some legal and some illegal, with an overwhelming emphasis on the fact that the rule change does not apply solely to tackling.
“This rule is inclusive of all players all over the field,” Riveron said, showing several examples of illegal contact by ball-carriers, blockers and special team players.
Riveron did explain the concept of a player’s intent when it came to ball-carriers lowering their heads before being tackled. He said a player who lowers his head while bracing for impact will not be penalized, while one lowering his head in an attempt to break a tackle will have violated the rule.
That clarification helped explain a play last week in which Rodney McLeod of the Philadelphia Eagles was penalized for a tackle on New England running back James White. Both players had lowered their head before contact, but only McLeod was punished, and he openly questioned the call after the game.
“It is my understanding that it was more so for leading with the crown of your head, and more helmet to helmet,” McLeod told reporters. “It felt like on that play, I didn’t do either. I went low and led with my shoulder, and he saw me coming and he obviously tried to get lower himself.”
McLeod, who called the hit a “routine tackle,” said the referee explained to him on the field that any such contact would be called for a foul during the preseason. And based on Riveron’s video, it may be called that way in the regular season, as well.
While the N.F.L. made no changes on Wednesday, Frank Reich, the first-year head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, expressed some optimism on Monday that the abundance of calls in the preseason would be temporary.
“We know that they are going to over-officiate it in preseason,” Reich, who agreed with Thomas’s ejection, told reporters after his team’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday. “I think we welcome that because I think we all know that the helmet as a weapon is not good for the game. Nobody wants it — coaches, players, fans.”
He added, “So if it takes over-officiating it a little bit in preseason to help us get it right, then I think we have to live with that and just understand that’s going to happen.”