NEW YORK — The NFL's revision of the catch rule figured to grab the spotlight this season.
Then the league altered the regulations on using the helmet when making contact on both sides of the ball, basically making it a 15-yard penalty no matter where on the helmet strikes an opponent. Even players on offense and linemen in the trenches are subject to being flagged, with potential fines and ejections for particularly flagrant hits by lowering the helmet.
Players are upset. Officials are deeper under the microscope. Fans are wondering why replay review isn't part of the entire process.
Suddenly, the Dez Bryant and Jesse James non-catches are non-issues. It's all about the helmet hits, which unquestionably need to be removed from the game in a similar way that tacklers launching to make hits pretty much has been eliminated in the pros.
Here's where things stand from a variety of constituencies as we head toward the kickoff of the 2018 schedule:
NFL executives were encouraged that the flags thrown for helmet-initiated hits dropped from 51 through the opening two weeks of the preseason to nine for Week 3 — when many regulars get on the field, though in a limited capacity. Officials have been instructed not to flag incidental or inadvertent contacts with the helmet or facemask by defensive or offensive players. The deeper we get into games that count, the better those with the whistle or ball in their hands or the guys attempting tackles will have a handle on what's legal.
"These are necessary changes where the rules come in," says Troy Vincent, the NFL's football operations chief and one of the hardest hitters in the league when he played defensive back from 1992-2006. "As stewards for the long term, the well-being of the players comes first."
Adds Giants owner John Mara, a long-time member of the competition committee that advises rules changes for teams to vote on:
"I think officials and players will adapt to the rule, that is what happens every time we have a change based on player safety. There's an outcry at the beginning that it will change the game, and it never works out that way; statistics don't bear that out at all. Players should not lower their heads is what it is all about, and we should not have some of the injuries we have seen."
The rule change has placed the men in stripes in even sharper focus. Simply put, at the current speed of play and with the size and power of players, any call is difficult. Now, a bit more judgment has been added, with decisions made in split seconds.
"It's still a work in progress because officials need to learn to instinctively read and react to this type of hit that they've never looked at before as a foul," says recently retired referee Terry McAulay, now an analyst for NBC. "So there is going to be some learning curve yet to come, but I think they're in a much better place than they were a week ago."
One somewhat puzzling question remains: Why isn't video replay involved when some of these calls, especially if they lead to ejections, can be game changers?
Well, it actually is, on a limited basis. Should a player be ejected for initiating helmet contact, Al Riveron and his staff at New York headquarters can affirm or overrule the ejection.
"Our charge is, No. 1 player safety: Make it safer in all ways," Riveron says. "No. 2, make sure we still have a product that is entertaining. And No. 3, find a happy balance with replay and how much it gets involved. We always stop the game to get it right."
Mara believes replay could play a further role if officiating the rule becomes too problematic.
"I certainly think are a lot of people who would support adding those calls to instant replay and making them reviewable," he says, "and I think that's another discussion we could have in the offseason if it is warranted."
THE DOCTORS AND RESEARCHERS
Thousands of hours and millions of dollars of data gathering, research, technological innovations and testing helped lead to the new rule. Every penny will have been well spent if usage of the helmet as a weapon disappears.
"It's an offshoot of all that work," says Jeff Miller, the league's executive vice president of health and safety initiatives, whose department works with medical professionals, researchers and equipment manufacturers. "An identification of what causes concussions and why there was a troubling increase in them.
"We see patterns, the increased velocity of the hits, the positioning of the head and neck ... that increase in force and magnitude of a hit, and not just with the crown of the helmet."
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's medical director, believes all the data helped construct a comprehensive story that required immediate action.
"Everything we saw said we must act on this," Sills says of the injury rate for helmet-first hits. "There was a sense of urgency when the data was so compelling to do something now on this."
For decades, the head was taught to be part of the tackling process. That has changed 180 degrees — at least in the NFL — as the consequences of that technique became so clearly grim and far-reaching.
NFL coaches — yes, even those who don't win with regularity — are the elite of the profession. Still, changing a culture that was part of football for so long, and might still be at lower levels of the sport, is challenging.
Throw in that some coaches were caught by surprise by the wide-ranging change, and others aren't truly certain when flags will fly, and there's concern on every NFL sideline.
New Titans coach Mike Vrabel, a Super Bowl-winning linebacker, narrated a league-distributed video on tackles that are kosher and which are outlawed. Yet his team was among the most penalized early in the preseason.
"It's frustrating because I'm not doing a good enough job explaining to them what they're calling," Vrabel said during training camp. "I think they look at me like I'm nuts when I say, 'This is what they're looking for. This is what they're calling.'
"We just really have to start watching. The helmet thing extends drives. Penalties are going to lead to scoring opportunities; 15 yards is an explosive gain. ... To continue to give them the 15-yard penalties is frustrating because I have to do a better job of making sure these guys aren't using the top of the helmet."
Another worry among coaches is whether the calls on offensive players will be equitable to those on defenders. Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, now a CBS analyst, recalled seeing three flags thrown on the defense for helmet-first hits when it was obvious to him that the ball carrier initiated the contact.
"It's a great rule," he says. "They just have to not over-officiate it. They shouldn't use the posture of getting in a protective position by the running back before he gets tackled, yet he's the one making contact with the helmet."
Ultimately, as anyone involved in any sport will say, the players have to make the plays. And make sure they are permissible plays.
It's not going to be easy at first. According to 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, it won't be easy ever.
"It's an idiotic rule, so there's no need to go down that road," Sherman says. "There's no way you can tackle and play football. I could tackle like that if I was standing still, got on my knees, no one was moving and I was tackling bags or something. But to ask you to do that at full speed?"
Adds Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu: "It's going to be extremely difficult. Obviously, guys are trying to take the initiative to really go about it the right way, but sometimes it's like, what do you expect a guy to do? Hopefully, we'll get it corrected and like I said, hopefully it doesn't take too much money from the guys.
"I just don't know when it's a foul, when it's clean. I have no idea."