After being put under a microscope by the general public, the NFL made a daring move to change the game in an attempt to limit head injuries on players by altering the tackling rules.
After years of dangerous hits to players’ heads by both defenders and occasionally offensive players, the NFL buckled down to try and deflect the increased attention on the dangerous effects of concussions to players. It has approached the situation by increasing fines and penalties for hits to the head over the past three seasons.
While I am very much in favor of protecting players, the league’s new rules have softened the game to the point that very clean tackles are now drawing penalty flags at an alarming rate. Look no further than Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, one of the league’s premier defenders, who has been flagged several times already in 2018 for ‘roughing the passer’ on hits that seemed clean to both fans, and in some cases, the broadcasters, too.
Matthews did not strike the head of the quarterback or drive him into the ground with excessive force, which have both been penalties for a long time, regardless of the new rules. No, he simply tackled the quarterback in each case very high up on his body, around the shoulder area. With the league under such immense public scrutiny by experts and doctors, the referees have had no choice but to call a penalty on these hits, whether they appeared clean or not.
The most significant rule change in recent years is the ‘use of helmet’ rule that was implemented prior to the current season. “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent,” the rule states via the official NFL website. “This rule pertains to all players on the field, and to all areas of the field.”
Making it illegal to lower your head on an offensive player in an attempt to decrease helmet-to-helmet contact seems like a good idea, right? Wrong. From the day you put on pads for the first time as a kid and are taught to tackle, any good coach will tell you that you need to keep your head lowered and off to the side of the person you are tackling. If done correctly, there is no helmet-to-helmet contact and your head being lowered simply allows you to more effectively tackle the offensive player.
No player is taught to aim for the helmet of another player, but now we have professional players — most of whom have been playing since they were old enough to begin contact sports — learning how to tackle in an entirely new way. The result has simply been more penalties.
In an age where most sports are trying to speed up gameplay in order to keep people interested longer, stopping play to call penalties that are entirely unnecessary has had the inverse result that the league was likely hoping for.
Instead of players exempting from leading with their heads while tackling, there have just been more “illegal” hits. The results of this rule have been critiqued by both current and former players.
“There is no ‘make adjustment’ to the way you tackle,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted on Aug. 19. “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic And should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon.”
Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe also chimed in on the subject.
“These penalties are getting ridiculous,” he tweeted on Aug. 18. “Tough to take someone to the ground without landing on them, whipping them down, grazing their head or hitting their legs. This is a tough game for tough people.”
It’s clear that players are not happy with the new rules, and I don’t think many fans are either. The NFL will have to take a serious look into finding middle ground on this issue before it loses touch with its audience.