With this one, there really seems to be no middle ground.
It's either "a huge victory for the National Football League," as it was described by Jeff Fisher, the coach of the St. Louis Rams and a member of the league's Competition Committee. Or it's an example of "some old guys in the room who didn't carry a football making rules that are really going to affect how this game is being played," as it was described by Marshall Faulk, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011.
At the conclusion of the 2013 spring meetings on Wednesday in Phoenix, NFL owners voted on a number of proposed rules changes – including the tuck rule that affected the outcome of the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff Game between Oakland and New England, and the rule that cost the Detroit Lions a win last Thanksgiving because of an illegal replay challenge – but the buzz was all about the passage of a rule making crown-of-the-helmet hits illegal by players outside the tackle box or at least 3 yards downfield. That tactic, currently being utilized in the NFL primarily by running backs, now will incur a 15-yard penalty, and a likely fine once the video is reviewed by the NFL office.
According to reports out of Phoenix late Tuesday night, some members of the Competition Committee believed the rule was close to getting the 24 votes needed to pass, but once the official balloting was concluded on Wednesday, it passed, 31-1, with the Cincinnati Bengals voting against.
"(Tuesday) there was discussion about different ways to enforce it," said Steelers President Art Rooney II, "starting out with it being just a fine or starting out with it being less than a 15-yard penalty, things like that. I think after everybody slept on it, we decided if we were going to do it, it made sense to pass the rule as it was proposed."
Most of the hesitancy about the crown-of-the-helmet rule came from those concerned about the burden to be placed on the in-game officials, who will be required to make split-second decisions on high-speed collisions taking place in real time, collisions that will not be able to be studied in slow-motion and in high-definition.
"I'm glad that I coach, as opposed to officiating," said Coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday. "In HD, slow-motion replay, those are easy calls. It's a different thing at real speed. I think (obvious) is the key word. That's the word being reiterated time and time again since we've been here, the obvious call, the targeting, whether it's offensively or defensively."
At a Monday news conference in Phoenix used to explain why the competition committee had proposed eliminating the crown-of-the-helmet move, a video was shown of Cleveland running back Trent Richardson lowering his head and popping the helmet off Philadelphia safety Kurt Coleman. That video was replayed time and again on television and the internet, and it became the signature example of what the league was attempting to ban.
"We're bringing the shoulder back to the game," said Fisher. "The helmet is a protective device, but it's not being used as that as of late. This is to protect the players."
This change falls in line with the NFL's continuing initiative on player safety, because the use of the head is just as dangerous for the offensive player as it is for the defender. The move will draw a 15-yard penalty, and if an offensive player and a defensive player both lower their heads, the resulting penalties will offset.
"I think there is legitimate concern about how it's going to be officiated and how it's going to be taught," said Rooney. "But Jim Brown said he never lowered his head when he was a runner, so it can certainly be done.
"I think the focus is going to be on the more extreme hits and the more extreme plays. That's our understanding, and obviously we won't know until they start to enforce the rule. I think the focus really is on some of the video they showed us that really was a pretty obvious kind of a play. At least initially, I think it will be focused on the obvious crown-of-the-helmet type hits."
The new rule will apply only to straight-on hits. If a running back's attempt to protect himself at the moment of contact results in a helmet-on-helmet hit, he won't incur a penalty if he turns his shoulder. Also, it will not be a penalty if two players running to the sideline happen to hit helmets, as long as the helmets weren't lowered and used as weapons.
"It wasn't as though people were against player safety," said Rooney, "but it really was a question of what was the right way to address this issue. There were a lot of discussions about different ways to do it. Really, there was a lot of concern on the coaches' part, in terms of putting the burden on the officials to take it out of the game. There was a lot of discussion about maybe we should just try to teach this out of the game and put it in the coaches' hands. So there was some support for that initially, but in the end, I think everybody decided this was the right way to do it."
Fisher believes the new rule is a major step forward as the NFL continues to try to take brain injuries out of the game, and he said concerns that flags will be thrown any time a running back tries to break a tackle are unfounded.
"It's not going to be over-officiated," Fisher said. "The key thing here is you can deliver a blow with shoulder, with face, with hairline. It's just deliberately striking with the crown, the top of the helmet."
Fisher said he understands that players oppose the rule, but he said that everyone who studied it — from coaches to medical personnel to officials — agreed this rule should be passed. And because the NFL is the highest level of the sport, there had to be some interest by ownership in the trickle-down effect. USA Football has instituted a Heads-Up Football Program designed to ensure that the proper techniques are being taught at the youth and high school levels, and lowering the crown of the helmet has no place in that program.
"We do have some studies that youth numbers are declining. It is a concern," said Rooney. "We need to bring more attention to the studies that say that youth football is not more dangerous than other sports. Dr. Micky Collins, down the street from our practice facility at the concussion clinic at UPMC has done some studies. I think people need to understand that part of it, when you compare it to other activities and other sports, youth football is not a more dangerous sport, and there are benefits that come from learning how to play. The mental and physical toughness that come from playing football is a good thing for a young boy to learn."
Somewhat lost in the shuffle on the final days of these meetings were the changes to the tuck rule, the abolishing of the illegal challenge rule, and the decision to table a proposal on whether to open the regular season as early as the Wednesday after Labor Day.
Based on the new version of the tuck rule, what Tom Brady did in that AFC Divisional Round Game against the Raiders would be ruled a fumble. Now if a quarterback starts to bring the football back toward his body while trying to throw, it will be ruled a fumble instead of an incomplete pass. That rule passed overwhelmingly as well, with only the Steelers dissenting, and with New England and Washington abstaining.
"I just didn't think it was necessary to make that change at this point," said Rooney about the tuck rule. "We were happy with the way the rule had been officiated over the years."
The change in the replay challenge rule that fixes a problem when coaches challenge a play that is reviewed in the replay booth. Under the new rule, a coach who challenges a play is charged a timeout when he throws a challenge flag. If the play is overturned, the coach gets back the challenge. It remains a 15-yard penalty if a coach challenges a booth reviewable play.
And the move to open the regular season as early as the Wednesday after Labor Day comes from the situation that has arisen in Baltimore, where the Orioles have a home game on the Thursday before Labor Day – traditionally Opening Night for the defending Super Bowl champions – and Major League Baseball appears to be unwilling to change to a day game to allow the Ravens to play that night.