In the interest of the survival of football and, by extension, the NFL, the league has an imperative to make the game les last dangerous for its participants. This Tuesday brought a sudden and significant change to the NFL rulebook.
From the Washington Post:
NFL leaders put the final piece of their just-announced new safety rule in place by saying Wednesday they expect instant replay to be used to help determine whether a player should be ejected from a game for lowering his head to use his helmet to deliver a hit.
When the rule was proposed, some players expressed frustration at what they perceived to be the further erosion of physicality from the sport. But I have to believe this was based on a misunderstanding about the rule’s intent and execution.
The NFL explained, in some detail in that Washington Post story, that they’ve found players are more likely to suffer injuries when leading with the head, and they’re trying to eliminate those plays from the sport, to whatever extent that is possible. If a player lowers his head to initiate contact with an opponent, he is subject to a personal foul and possible ejection, whether or not he aims at his opponent’s head. The intent is to correct unsafe tackling techniques, and use a replay booth to help make the calls.
Besides, these plays are relatively rare, Doug Williams, who is in the Redskins’ front office, told the Post.
“It’s gonna happen,” he said. “Sometimes it happens accidentally. But at the same time, you’ve got to let them know that this is not gonna be part of the game. … There’s not a lot of guys that do that. But it happens.”
I can say from firsthand experience and personal observation that head-first tackles are common at the youth and high school levels, even though “spearing” has been outlawed since the 1970s. Tackling a runner is a good deal harder than it looks on TV, and kids looking not to screw up will do pretty much whatever it takes to get a guy down.
The NFL should be a leader in this area and, although this one rule is not going to fix the sport’s player safety issues, it was something the NFL could do to make things better, and it did.
It was a long-term play by the NFL. It adds another potential stoppage of play to a game that is absolutely riddled with them, and in the short term, that’s not good. But the NFL’s charge is no longer just to draw more eyeballs than it did the year before, it’s to help the sport itself survive.