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Proposed NFL rule on helmet hits by running backs stirs emotions

Former ballcarriers oppose the regulation that would prevent a running back from using the crown of the helmet to initiate contact in the open field.

March 19, 2013|By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times

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PHOENIX — In the name of player safety, the NFL is weighing a ban on running backs initiating contact in the open field by lowering their heads and using the crown of their helmet to strike defenders.

But the proposed rule is jarring to many, including some prominent former ballcarriers who are concerned the potential change fundamentally alters the game and could leave running backs even more vulnerable.

"This is a joke," Hall of Fame back Marshall Faulk said Tuesday on NFL Network, for whom he's an analyst. "If you're a ballcarrier and you're trying to protect yourself, you're going to duck.

"I understand they want safety, and I'm all for safety within the game, but it can't just be some old guys in the room who didn't carry a football making rules that are really going to affect how this game is being played. I just don't understand."

Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, said officials looked at the 16 games in the final week of last season and found 34 instances of helmet-to-helmet contact. Of those collisions, five would have been flagged under the proposed rule, which would carry a 15-yard penalty.

The balloting of teams on the rule change is scheduled for Wednesday, with a three-quarters majority 24 votes needed to pass.

"There is going to be helmet-to-helmet contact between a runner and a tackler, that is not what this rule is designed to take out," Blandino said. "It is where one player lowers the head and delivers a blow with the crown, the top of the helmet, lines up a player and hits him when we feel he has options to do something else."

There is no consensus among coaches about what should be done. Although most, if not all, agree those hits pose a danger, there is uncertainty about how effectively and consistently officials would be able to identify those infractions in split-second situations.

"I think it's obvious that we all want those types of plays out of the game," Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Tuesday during breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore, where the annual owners meetings are taking place. "For me, it's about how do we officiate it.

"Really, that's probably the same for a lot of the rules. In spirit, they are obviously great rules that are intended for the good of the game. But officiating it is another thing."

Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh shrugged off the notion the proposal is a significant departure from what the NFL already does.

"I just don't think it's that big of a change," he said. "As coaches, we've never taught the crown of the helmet. There's no coach that has taught the crown of the helmet. It's just not part of football, never has been. Anybody that has played the game knows that when you're going in on a higher hit, you tackle with your eyes up. You see what you hit."

Harbaugh conceded flagging infractions would be difficult.

"In all fairness, it's going to be tough on the officials," he said. "It's going to be tough to make that determination at live speed with one look."

Said St. Louis Coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee: "We want to bring the shoulder back to the game. We all know the helmet is a protective device; it's not designed to be used like it's being used as of late and we want to protect our players, specifically out in space."

Still, there are respected voices who would opt to give the proposal the Heisman stiff arm.

"If I'm a running back and I'm running into a linebacker, you're telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off?" Hall of Fame back Emmitt Smith said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. "You've absolutely lost your mind."

Owners voted on two rules changes Tuesday, passing both. They outlawed "peel-back" blocks anywhere on the field, below-the-waist hits from behind or the side on a player moving toward the goal line. Those will result in 15-yard penalties.

Also, teams cannot overload a formation while trying to block a field-goal or extra-point try. Defensive teams can have a maximum of six players on each side of the snapper at the line of scrimmage. Players on the line cannot push teammates into blockers, either.

The formation penalty is a five-yard violation, and the push counts for 15.

Owners will also decide whether to eliminate the controversial "tuck rule," made famous years ago when an apparent fumble by New England's Tom Brady in a snowy playoff game against Oakland was waved off.

"We've been talking about it for years, we have two years of historical data now with replay reviewing turnovers," Fisher said. "It's being ruled a turnover, it's being ruled a fumble on the field; we have two years of that. Officials are getting it right and we all think it's a fumble, so now let it be a fumble."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesFarmer

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