Well, you made it. You survived. The 213-day wait for meaningful football is over. The NFL’s 99th season has arrived in all its wonder, worries and warts.
Optimism abounds from the Super Bowl champion Eagles down to the 0-16 Browns. But so do concerns about the future of a league that’s constantly fighting a now-three-year-old national anthem controversy, a decline in TV ratings, a perceived slide in overall quality of play, a bombastic enemy of the league in President Trump, and, of course, the thin line between preserving the game’s violence and protecting player safety.
That last concern might be trickiest of all to manage. Especially for the officials charged with enforcing the new helmet rule in a way that pleases both sides from now through Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.
After a confusing preseason of inconsistency, the true impact of the rule will start unfolding Thursday night when the Falcons and Super Bowl champion Eagles kick off the regular season in Philadelphia.
Two weeks into the preseason, worry around the league was palpable as officials stuck to the letter of the rule stating that any player lowering his helmet to initiate contact will be penalized 15 yards and subject to ejection.
“It’s going to cost some people some jobs,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said after his team’s second preseason game. “Playoffs, jobs, the whole bit, I’m guessing. … It’s just hard to figure out.”
Vikings safety Harrison Smith piled on. When asked if he feared the new rule will change the outcome of games, he said, “I don’t fear it. It is going to happen. Without a doubt, that is going to happen. It is going to change games.”
Of course, perceptions change quickly in the NFL. The league stepped in with new language in the rule and a sense of calm was restored as flags for players lowering their helmets to initiate contact dropped from 51 in the first two weeks of preseason games to 20 in the last two.
“I think that when [the NFL] added the words ‘incidental’ and ‘inadvertent’ for actions that were not to be called, that told the officials to focus on making sure you get the ones that are … obvious to everybody that need to be out of the game,” said Terry McAulay, former NFL official and first-year rules analyst for NBC’s Sunday Night in America broadcast. “So, I think if this is where we’re headed, we’re going to be OK with it very early [in the regular season].”
But that’s not to say more problems didn’t surface during the last two weeks of the preseason. In Week 3 of the preseason, the Jaguars blamed the new helmet rule for the season-ending knee injury suffered by receiver Marqise Lee.
Falcons safety Damontae Kazee went low for the tackle, hitting Lee’s left knee with a direct blow. Kazee was flagged for using his helmet to initiate contact, but replays showed that it was Kazee’s shoulder that made the contact.
“Don’t blame [Kazee],” Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey said. “Blame the NFL. People are scared to tackle normal.”
Consider Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs among those who are more concerned about defenders going low.
“I’d rather someone hit me on top, actually, because, as a receiver, you want your legs,” Diggs said. “So if you put [defenders] in an awkward position, they are going to have to chop guys down. I’d rather have someone hit me up top. I’d rather take the [head] shot.”
The NFL certainly hopes a middle ground can be found and followed. It has enough mayhem to deal with just getting through the national anthem.
In May, NFL owners thought they had a solution that would make everyone happy. Only it made no one happy.
The new policy mandated that all players must stand on the field or stay in the locker room. Teams would be fined and in turn be allowed to punish violators.
But that policy was shelved in July as part of an agreement between the league and the players’ union to continue discussing the matter.
And, here we are, two months later, no resolution and opening night upon us. Ready or not, here comes the NFL’s 99th season.