By: Caleb J Duncan
Richard Sherman’s prediction was spot on. In July, Sherman spoke with USAToday about the potential disaster of the new Use of Helmet rule. Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger told ESPN it could lead to more injuries since players would be forced to use their shoulder to try and make a tackle. Los Angeles Rams cornerback Aqib Talib was one of the players who felt this was a positive change for the league because he saw the effort to keep the players safe and recognized players were going to have to adjust. However, many players felt this new penalty was going a step too far because it’s simply too hard to ask them to adjust in such a small way so they aren’t penalized or possibly ejected from the game.
When the 2018 season began the targeting penalty was getting thrown around left and right, and along with the updates to the roughing the passer rule (see any tackle Clay Matthews has made this season), many players and fans are frustrated. Players because they feel they can’t play the game they know and fans because the loss of momentum in a game just isn’t ideal. This needs to get figured out for the good of the NFL and their viewership.
There is no argument against the NFL attempting to keep their players safe, or as safe as you can be playing a violent sport. No one wants to see a hit so bad the player is forced to leave the game and the Ryan Shazier incident last season is a prime example and catalyst as to why the NFL knew they had to take steps to better protect the players. However, these new rules, while well-intentioned, are proving to be wildly inconsistent.
There are a litany of examples, like Shazier’s injury, to show why a rule like this is needed. Tonight’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys produced a helmet-to-helmet exchange with linebacker Jaylon Smith sidelining running back Alvin Kamara after the hit. Smith was not called for the blatant foul, per their rules.
Yet, there are other examples of these fouls slipping through the cracks. on October 4th, Patriots running back Sony Michel was guilty of the same penalty when he made contact with Colts safety Clayton Geathers. On October 1st, Broncos Safety was on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet from Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Neither Michel nor Hunt were called out on the plays by the officials. It is also more common for this penalty to be given to a defensive player.
On November 8th, Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid was ejected from the game after a very questionable tackle on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Both Reid and head coach Ron Rivera were in disagreement over the ejection. Rivera conceded he understood the penalty given how careful the league wants to be with a player’s safety but to eject a player for trying to take down another player, was just not fair in his eyes. Reid went as far as to say he simply didn’t understand why he was ejected. Reid told ESPN that the quarterback was running the ball out of the pocket, so he’s essentially a running back. Therefore, he has to try and tackle him. Whether the call was fair or not is up to each individual. The pattern here is these tackles are happening and the referees cannot decide if they want to throw the flag or not.
One of the other reason’s this stricter rule was put in place was due to the hit from Malcolm Jenkins on Brandin Cooks during Superbowl 52. Cooks was forced to leave the game after the legal hit from Jenkins during a play. When asked about the play later on, referees were divided on if they would have thrown the flag or not. This play, the play that the league said is what made them finally decide to implement the new rule, was still drawing mixed messages. This is an indication that the league may not have been able to fully define what constituted a penalty even though they released a video to help explain.
The new roughing the passer rule is drawing equal criticism as well. Players are being penalized for hitting or landing on a quarterback after they have thrown the ball. In theory, this makes sense because you tackle the guy with the ball, right? The problem is players are being flagged because they were in midair or moving too fast to stop by the time the quarterback released the ball. So players, like Clay Matthews, are being penalized for a tackle that was legal a second before the hit. Clearly, a lot changes in a second. Admittedly, it does seem like these calls are not occurring as frequently. Whether it’s because players made the necessary adjustments or because referees are being more lenient on their new rule is hard to say.
These two new penalties are drawing criticism for two separate reasons. Some people feel that football is an inherently violent game and to penalize players for doing what they are basically paid to do is not only unfair, but it makes the game less fun. Others, like Aqib Talib, defend the NFL’s attempts to make the game safer. That debate is completely valid and can be had between one another. The second and more relevant critique is the inconsistency seen on a weekly basis from the referees and the league. If they want to put this rule in place then that is their prerogative and certainly, no one wants to see a player injured to the point to where they have to retire. Like Ryan Shazier, former Texans tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz was forced to retire at the age of 26 due to the number of concussions he had sustained in his short tenure with the league. No one wants to see that. The league has to get it together though. They have to be able to definitively call these penalties because failing to do so can affect a game in a multitude of ways. On a larger scale, it can affect the team if a player is suspended for a hit some referees feel was a penalty while others do not. There will always be some level of gray area for penalties in football and not every referee will agree on a flag, but the higher level of inconsistency seen with these two new rules is proving to be too frustrating for players and fans.
If the league wants to keep these new rules in place then they need to use this offseason to iron out the kinks and create a more solid structure for these penalties, not just for the player’s sake, but their own as well.
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