The new helmet contact rule was meant to be another step in minimizing the most devastating blows to the head in NFL games. But six weeks into the regular season, defenders are still putting their heads down. Over and over, penalties have not been called.
Remember during the preseason when NFL game officials threw penalty flags for any hit to a player’s head? Remember the controversy over a new rule that prohibited any player — on offense or defense — from initiating contact with his helmet?
There were so many penalties called, even on incidental helmet-first contact, that some players feared the game was being ruined.
It led to ejections and the threat of suspensions. Remember?
Yeah, well, that isn’t happening any longer.
The new rule certainly didn’t protect Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper on Sunday.
In the Raiders’ game against Seattle in London, Cooper was reaching for a low pass when Seahawks safety Bradley McDougald sprinted forward and lowered his head and shoulder to deliver a helmet-to-helmet hit that appeared to knock Cooper unconscious. McDougald’s helmet brutally collided against the right side of Cooper’s helmet.
It was a textbook example of what the league, alarmed by rising concussion rates and the lasting effects of repeated hits to the head, has vowed to legislate out of the game by making the punishment for such a hit substantial and onerous.
But there was no flag thrown Sunday. And certainly no ejection.
Cooper lay motionless on the turf for about a minute as medical personnel tended to him. His teammates gathered around him, some angry.
A second after the hit, Oakland tight end Jared Cook turned toward nearby officials and started pointing to his helmet as if reminding them of the new rule. There is also a rule against what is called “targeting” an opponent for an especially dangerous hit.
McDougald could have been called for either foul. After the game, he defended the hit as part of the Seahawks’ style of play.
“We’re taking our shots when we get a chance,” McDougald said. “Don’t get me wrong. We’re not trying to injure guys — trying to take guys out of the game. We’re really just trying to play physical. I wish nothing bad on Amari Cooper. I hope he gets healthy. But I was just trying to set a tone and be physical when he touches that ball.”
After several minutes, Cooper rose to his feet and walked off the field. Soon, he was ruled out of the game with a concussion. Who knows how long he may be sidelined.
Although it was not the same kind of collision, Cincinnati’s oft-penalized linebacker Vontaze Burfict, in his second game after a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, used his shoulder and elbow to smack Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown in the head after a catch Sunday.
Again, no flag.
The new helmet contact rule was meant to be another step in minimizing the most devastating blows to the head in NFL games. In the preseason, the consensus was that the game officials, probably at the direction of league headquarters, were purposely overreacting and calling penalties for headfirst contact at an especially high rate to get the players’ attention.
At the time, the phrase used often by league officials was that the new helmet rule was designed to “change the culture” of the NFL by teaching players to get their head out of the way of many collisions. And if that was the goal, then certainly any attempt by a player to lead with his head would be a penalty. And ejection from the game and suspension was also a possibility.
But six weeks into the regular season, scores of running backs have put their heads down and used their helmets to deliver a blow as a tackler approaches — just as they have for decades. Defenders have done the same thing.
Over and over, penalties have not been called in those instances.
If you watch a week’s worth of NFL games, you’ll see dozens of collisions where one or both players in a tackling situation lower their heads in anticipation of a collision and initiate contact with their helmets.
And occasionally, as in the case of the McDougald-Cooper tackle, the outcome of the impact is predictable, disturbing and hard to watch. Which is precisely the situation the new rule was supposed to prevent.
Changing the culture of a violent game, like change in any walk of life, is hard. Undoubtedly, some helmet-first collisions cannot be avoided, but the NFL was right to make an effort to eliminate as many as possible in the preseason. It was a step in the right direction.
With the regular season in full swing, having the game officials hold on to their penalty flags after the most blatant, dangerous blows to the head is hardly the suitable, forward-thinking next step.
Penalty flags, and stronger punishment, for patently unsafe behavior never ruined any game worth saving.