Most of us have taken traffic school before. I’ve taken traffic school a couple times in my life. Most of the stuff I knew already, but you sit and listen because you have no choice, and, hey, maybe you learn something you didn’t know.
One of those trips to traffic school, the instructor said something that stuck with me. “There’s no way to keep from getting a ticket,” he said. He explained that there are so many traffic laws that you’re bound to break one or many of them at any given time while driving. All we can do is try to navigate our way through the streets and freeways as best we can to avoid getting a ticket.
That’s kind of been the case in the NFL with regard to flags for a while now. On any given play, there is something that could be considered holding or illegal contact, or unsportsmanlike conduct, or a myriad of other things. But up to this point, it seemed like there was at least some basic understanding of what those things were and how to avoid them most of the time.
This lowering the helmet rule does not fit into that range.
“You know, I’ve talked to a lot of coaches on it. The guys get in funky positions. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable to get those things,” said Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
“It’s really all over the board with the DB’s, open field things. So, we just have to keep educating the players the best we can.”
Guenther saw firsthand the rule bite one of his DB’s. Karl Joseph was flagged for lowering his head in what looked to be a clean hit.
“Yeah, it’s hard. A guy’s going down and I’m trying to make the tackle. I don’t know how to avoid that,” said Joseph of the hit.
That play had a lot of other people also asking ‘What was he supposed to do?’ Guenther included.
“I actually asked the official right after the play was over,” said Guenther. “I think sometimes when you hear the collision, it’s just the natural tendency to throw the flag. When you go back and look at the film you can clearly see his head was to the side and it wasn’t helmet-to-helmet or anything like that. I think someone told me there was 52 of them called in 33 preseason games. So, I understand that you’re trying to make the game safer and we’re all trying to do that, but at some point, it is football.”
I have heard coaches, including Jon Gruden, explain the spirit of the rule and the intention behind it. Most of which is really just a matter of executing the fundamentals players have long been taught about keeping your head up. But the problem is how it’s being flagged on the field. Even without a player lowering his helmet into another player, that player is drawing a flag. Routine tackles are drawing flags. Hits that are clearly using the shoulder pads are drawing flags.
The players are lost. Especially NFL veterans like Derrick Johnson who said he is “too old to change” his playing style.
“I don’t think anybody knows how this is going to go,” said Johnson. “That’s going to be a grey area. All you can do is just try to play by the rules. It’s going to be hard, especially with defensive players.”
After two preseason games that have drawn considerable criticism from fans, media, players, coaches, and basically everyone, the NFL put out a statement saying essentially that all is well and the rule is good and there is no reason for replay and move along nothing to see here.
Saying they “reviewed feedback” from players and coaches to come to their conclusion is pretty laughable. They may have heard them, but there’s no way they actually took their opinions into consideration.
The NFL has been running full speed away from being a contact sport for the past few years. It’s all in the name of making the game safer. I get that. It’s a good plan, in theory. These players shouldn’t be receiving constant brain trauma and the lifelong problems that come with it. That’s not the problem here. It’s like the murky catch rules the league had for many years that made for the running joke of “What is a catch?” No one knew. Even the best most educated NFL analysts and former officials got it wrong a good percentage of the time.
Now, we’re talking about the simple matter of tackling. The most fundamental part of the game. And no one seems to know how to do that now without being flagged for a tackle that just last year would have been considered perfect form.
As infuriating as it is for the players and coaches, it’s pretty maddening for the fans watching and the media trying to cover it. The last thing we need is another unevenly called rule that rips at the fabric of what TACKLE FOOTBALL means.
Most people are just hoping they are going overboard with it in the preseason and will pull it back in the regular season. But what does that mean? Just call it less? That won’t solve it. Since instant replay is off the table, they would have to be absolutely sure. Excuse me for being skeptical.