Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8.
A somewhat controversial proposal became a new addition to the NFL rulebook on Wednesday, triggering much reaction and leaving Vikings coach Leslie Frazier feeling somewhat conflicted.
The new rule, one of six passed at the league’s annual meetings this week, now calls for a 15-yard penalty to be assessed on any runner or tackler who “initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet.”
The measure was proposed as a means of reducing head, neck and spine injuries. And that aim to improve safety wound up being the major factor in producing a 31-1 vote in favor of the rule.
Following three days of heated debate, the Cincinnati Bengals were the lone dissenters. Yet the Vikings’ final vote in favor of the proposal seemed in stark contrast with the views team representatives had expressed during the meetings.
Frazier was vocal with concerns about the way the new rule may be legislated, left as a judgment call by each respective officiating crew. He also feared the rule’s implementation could be detrimental to physical tailbacks such as Vikings star Adrian Peterson, potentially exposing him to greater risk and changing the way he plays.
“The little guys aren’t going to be tackling the Adrian Petersons of the world up high, I can promise you that,” Frazier said Wednesday morning before the final vote. “They’re going to always try to get leverage and get their pads lower than his pads. That’s what they’re taught. But now, from my vantage point, these running backs who have to get their pads down, if they’re not able to [lower their heads] and protect themselves, you may open yourself up to potential lower-body injuries.”
Still, despite those objections and the reported vocal skepticism shown Tuesday by owner Zygi Wilf, the Vikings wound up persuaded by the league’s intense push to enhance player safety, swayed by presentations on how the new rule should reduce concussions plus other neck injuries.
Under the NFL’s current climate, opposing measures to improve safety is a difficult decision.
Said Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee: “Where [in the past] we’ve really focused on the big hits, the open field hits and hits where a player truly can’t defend himself, I think in this step what we’re undertaking is trying to protect the players from themselves.”
It should be noted that the new rule will only be enforced outside the tackle box and more than 3 yards down field. And the competition committee is encouraging officials to only penalize the obvious foul.
Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, noted again Wednesday that in the study of 30 games from last season (every contest from Weeks 10 and 16), only 11 plays were found that would be penalties under the new rule.
Of those 11 instances, Blandino said, only about half were violations by running backs.
In theory, runners ducking into hits with the hairline or sides of their helmet will not be punished. But with the speed of the game and the judgment of each officiating crew differing from week to week, things could get dicey.
An hour before the Vikings cast their vote on the rule, Frazier remained adamantly opposed.
“You have to look at what this could potentially do to a running back and how he plays the game,” he said. “That’s a bigger issue. Is it going to make the game safer without altering what these guys do for a living with how they play and how they perform? … I just know being around great running backs, whether that be Walter [Payton] or Adrian, they are so instinctual with what they do. They’re not thinking a lot of times about when they’re going to use a stiff arm, how they’re going to use it. They’re not premeditating some of the moves they make.
“So to make them start thinking about should I lower my shoulder left or right or spin this way, I just don’t know. I just don’t know how this is going to affect this position.”