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NFL could penalize ball carriers for lowering head

Posted Mar 14, 2013

Player safety remains paramount in proposed rule changes

A proposed new rule would penalize offensive players 15 yards for initiating contact with the crown of their helmet.

GREEN BAY—Offensive players who lower their head into would-be tacklers could be penalized next season.

That’s one of six proposed rule changes the league’s competition committee, of which Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy is a member, will make at the NFL annual meeting next week in Phoenix. All proposed changes are subject to a vote of the league owners.

As the NFL has focused on player safety in recent years, most of the protections put in place have been for “defenseless” players, such as a wide receiver going across the middle.

This rule change would make it illegal for any player outside the tackle box, whether on offense or defense, to lower his head and initiate contact with the crown of the helmet. The penalty would be 15 yards for unnecessary roughness.

“The time has come we need to address the situation in space when a runner or tackler has a choice as to how he’s going to approach an opponent, and we’re going to say he can’t make that choice of ducking his head and making a forcible blow with the top crown of the helmet,” competition committee chairman Rich McKay said in a conference call with media on Thursday.

“We’re trying to protect runner or tackler from themselves. We’re looking for obvious fouls on this one.”

McKay added that helmet contact deemed incidental would not be penalized, but the judgment call could be a tough one for officials. A running back, for example, could be trying to lower his shoulder and drive it into a defender, but he could inadvertently strike a blow with the helmet. Calls would not be reviewable.

Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Rams and a member of the competition committee, believes a player’s intent can be clearly observed.

“The ball carrier is still permitted to lower his shoulder, and the head is going to come down to protect the football. We’re not taking that part of the run out of the play,” Fisher said. “What we’re saying is in space, one-on-one, head-up, we’re not going to allow you to load up and use the crown of your helmet. It’s an obvious thing.”

Other proposed changes would eliminate the tuck rule and change the procedure for coaches illegally challenging plays.

The tuck rule has been one of the NFL’s more controversial rules for more than a decade, ever since the 2001 AFC playoffs, when Charles Woodson’s hit on New England quarterback Tom Brady jarred the ball loose, but Oakland’s fumble recovery was overturned by replay when it was determined Brady was trying to “tuck” the ball back into his body.

“We have talked about this for too many years,” McKay said. “A great majority of these are called fumbles and appropriately called fumbles, … but it has to be reversed from what everybody at home thinks is a fumble because of the written rule.”

Officials told the competition committee they’re comfortable distinguishing whether a quarterback is attempting to pass the ball or hold onto it, McKay said, so the rule change is finally being proposed. A ball lost with the quarterback’s arm going forward would still be ruled an incomplete pass, and with all turnovers subject to automatic review anyway, eliminating the tuck rule essentially would wipe out any gray area.

As for the challenge flag, all automatically reviewed plays would still be reviewed, even if a head coach throws his red flag when he’s not allowed to.

The red-flag rule would be modified to inextricably link throwing the challenge flag to calling a timeout. If the coach wins his challenge, he gets his timeout back. If the play was going to be automatically reviewed anyway (such as a score, turnover or inside the two-minute warning of either half), the coach loses the timeout, but the play would still be reviewed. Any coach throwing his red flag without a timeout available, or without any challenges remaining, would be penalized 15 yards.

This change would eliminate what happened to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving last season, when Houston running back Justin Forsett was credited with an 81-yard touchdown run despite replays showing he was down by contact after only a short gain. Because Detroit coach Jim Schwartz threw his red flag on an automatically reviewable play, the review was canceled. That would no longer be the case.

“The result did not make the punishment fit the crime,” McKay said.

Additional proposals relate to player safety. One would restrict overloading one side on a FG/PAT rush. No more than six defensive players would be permitted to line up on either side of the snapper, teammates would not be allowed to push other rushers through gaps, and long snappers would receive defenseless player protections.

Also, offensive players executing peel-back blocks would not be allowed to block low, whether inside or outside the tackle box. Previously, low peel-back blocks only outside the tackle box have been illegal.

Mandatory thigh and knee pads will also be a point of emphasis for equipment checkers. The pads were made mandatory last year, and the rule will be enforced more strictly in 2013.

 
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