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Copyright 2018 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

Dayton Daily News (Ohio)


ORLANDO - "Heads Up" is now the law of the land in the NFL.

Just like that, the league outlawed the dangerous technique of players lowering their heads, effectively using their helmets as weapons while tackling. With its quick, surprising passage Tuesday at the league's annual meeting, the measure is suddenly among the shortest entries in the NFL Rule Book. Officially, it's Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8.

Here it is, in its entirety: "It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.

"Penalty: Loss of 15 yards. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down. The player may be disqualified."

That's it. So it is decreed, in the name of safety. This isn't a new helmet-to-helmet rule. That already exists. It isn't a targeting rule. That's in the college game, and still not an NFL rule.

This replaces the rule that banned players from using the crown of helmet. Lowering the head, sadly, is what Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier did when he suffered his serious spinal injury in December.

"We're getting to a point where the technique is too dangerous," Rich Mc-Kay, the chairman of the league's competition committee, said during a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday afternoon.

This is seemingly well-intentioned. Last season, according to NFL injury data, 47% of concussions were caused by helmet-to-helmet hits, a sharp increase from the 33% mark from the 2015 campaign. Overall concussions were up last year, too.

Yet this measure came out of nowhere when compared to the typical chatter that surrounds significant rules changes in the NFL. Sure, there has been conversation for some time about instituting a targeting rule similar to the NCAA's. But this goes beyond that. As McKay explained it, they wanted to get away from "situational" protection when the real issue is how the helmet is routinely used in the manner it was not designed.

The manner in which Shazier was injured, which jeopardizes his career after it was originally feared that he might not walk again, tells you everything you need to know about the dangers of lowering the head on a tackle.

Let's hope this new rule reduces injuries and that it further changes the culture that has evolved with more awareness of head trauma. The NFL hopes it trickles down to youth football, where kids are taught to tackle with their heads up.

Still, as buzz circulated Tuesday that a new rule was being passed - it was never mentioned a day earlier when the competition committee outlined proposals such as the new catch rule - it felt like the league that came under so much fire and scrutiny about head injuries had to demonstrate another example of being proactive on the safety front.

McKay admitted there's still work to be done. The rule doesn't tell us what's a 15-yard penalty and what would lead to an ejection. And at least at this point, the rulings on the field can't be confirmed or overturned by instant replay. So there's some serious gray area in play. Even players, whom the league typically consults during meetings including the players union while in the process of considering rules changes, seem confused.

Richard Sherman, in a text to USA TODAY's Mike Jones, seemed like he was addressing a targeting rule when slamming the rule as "ridiculous."

"Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you're getting a ticket," Sherman texted. "(It's) gonna lead to more lower extremity injuries."

Josh Norman, the Washington cornerback, maintained, "I don't know how you're going to play the game."

Yes, there's some work to be done. With the rule, the techniques and the communication.

But it's on the books now, a rule with a fast start.

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March 28, 2018




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