It's unclear who initiated this helmet-to-helmet contact when Redskins… (Patrick Semansky / Associated…)
PHOENIX -- Despite complaints that they are fundamentally changing the game, NFL owners voted almost unanimously Wednesday to ban players from ducking their heads to initiate contact in the open field.
The rules change, which capped the league's annual meeting, passed by a 31-1 margin, with the only vote against it coming from the Cincinnati Bengals.
The rule imposes a 15-yard penalty if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the crown (top) of his helmet when both players are clearly outside the tackle box.
The tackle box is defined as an area extending from offensive tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage back to the end zone behind the line of scrimmage. Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler is not a foul.
"We have demonstrated that the game is safer and the game is better," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "We can do both of those. That is what we are proud of. We are going to continue to do that intelligently."
Many fans complain the game is inching closer to flag football, and some former running backs warned the crown-of-the-helmet rule change will put ballcarriers at greater risk because they will be less able to defend themselves.
Several coaches at the meeting wondered about the difficulty of officials making the nuanced call of helmet position on tackles — the play is not reviewable on instant replay — and believe that a 15-yard penalty could be unnecessarily punitive.
"I can't tell you that I'm in favor of 15-yard penalties," Seattle Coach Pete Carroll said. "Fifteen-yard penalties, look at your statistics of how a 15-yard penalty restricts an offense from scoring. I don't think that's the intent of, 'OK, let's call a penalty that's going to take you out of scoring. It's such a bad play that we don't want you to score.' But that's what happens."
The penalty yardage will be assessed from the spot of the foul, so a long run would not necessarily be wiped out completely.
The league studied every play in two weeks of last season's games and determined there were a combined 11 such infractions in 32 games.
Said St. Louis Coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee: "Prior to coming in here, I got a phone call from [former NFL running back] Eddie George. He said, 'What is going on?' He took the position that this is going to be a difficult thing to enforce and a difficult way to play this game. After a 15-minute conversation, he changed his mind and said, 'That makes sense. I would be in favor of that.'"
The NFL also did away with the so-called tuck rule, so now it is a fumble if a player who starts his throwing motion loses possession during an attempt to bring the ball back to his body.
On Tuesday, the league banned peel-back blocks, which are hits from behind or beside a forward-moving player, and it ruled defensive lines may not overload on one side on field goals or extra points.