The “crown of the helmet” rule doesn’t make it flag football

Crown of the HelmetJust shut up, Emmitt Smith. You’re standing in the way of safety and progress. You’re being an ass.

Despite my begrudging respect for the Hall-of-Fame worthy career of the man who holds the record for most rushing yards in league history, Emmitt Smith’s tirade following the announcement of the new “crown of the helmet” rule is playing havoc with the insecurities of fans and players. It’s also ignorant and shortsighted.

For those who missed it, the NFL Competition Committee passed a rule change prohibiting players from executing a “forcible blow with the crown of the helmet” while outside of the tackle box. (Video explanation of the rule here.)

Of course, before the full verbiage of the rule even became public (my case for calling him ignorant), Emmitt Smith was already spouting his misguided concerns in a very public way to the Dallas Morning News. He called the rule ‘ridiculous.’ “You’ve been taught since you were a little kid to get behind your shoulder pads to protect yourself and lower your shoulder,” said Smith in a phone interview on Monday. “The first thing you do is lower your shoulder but attached to your shoulder is your head. It’s not like you’re trying to go in there and really trying to deliver a blow but your head is part of protecting yourself.”

Sure, that sounds reasonable enough. Until you consider the specifics of the rule. Which won’t do very much to change the game at all.

Let’s break it all down:

1) What is the crown of the helmet?

The crown of the helmet is the top of the helmet (see graphic above). It’s not the whole helmet, as many fear it to be. Rams coach Jeff Fisher, one of the most outspoken proponents of the rule change, specifically indicated that the runner still has the opportunity to initiate contact with the face mask or forehead. So essentially this rule amounts to not “dipping your head” while you try to run through somebody. Dipping your head is how people get compression fractures in their vertebrae. Dipping your head is how you get bulging discs. Sure, you can break a tackle by doing it, but you run the risk of knocking yourself out (or worse) in the process. 

2) The rule is only in effect outside of the tackle box:

Quit fretting. Your 3rd-and-1s and 4th-and-1s are safe. The tackle box is the area extending two yards wide on each side of the offensive tackles before the snap, back to the offense’s goal line, and roughly three yards past the line of scrimmage. When you need your running back to dive into the line to get that last yard, this penalty call will never be made. Shonn Greene’s job is safe yet another year.

3) Objection: “It opens up running backs to other injuries”

Nobody said you had to run upright. Nobody said you couldn’t lower your shoulder. But even so, let’s entertain the notion that a running back will be forced to initiate contact in a more upright fashion. What areas get exposed: Ribs, chest, waist. Frankly, an injury to any of them is less dangerous than a head/neck injury. Sure, it’s an ugly trade-off, but it’s a better one. Perhaps not for the immediate careers of the players, but for their chances of avoiding a lifetime of concussion symptoms.

Of course, all this would be ignoring the fact that defensive players have been taught to initiate contact “with your head up.” In fact, that’s one of the basics of teaching tackling. Keep your head up and eyes downfield. If a tackler can successfully plant his shoulder into a player while keeping his head up, there is no reason a running back can’t do the same. No, this won’t be perfect and there will be an adjustment period, but these sorts of changes tend to trickle down. If the NCAA and high-school football organizations adopt these rules and start teaching them, far fewer pro players will be leading with the crowns of their helmets in 5-8 years. And if the NFL is truly concerned about its long-term future, that time span is relatively short by comparison.

4) Incidental contact will not be penalized:

Pretty much speaks for itself. Yes, there will be instances when this rule will be called in error, but every rule change has growing pains.

5) It’s about time they started protecting defensive players:

For the last couple of years, new rules regarding “headhunting” have seemed to focus squarely on the defensive side of the ball. While there have been some changes regarding dangerous “crack back” blocks, 2013 is really the first time that defensive player safety has taken a step forward. The “crown of the helmet” rule is significant because it finally draws a line that an offensive player can’t cross. Emmitt Smith may be concerned about the running back’s safety, but look at this play by Trent Richardson and try to explain to me how it’s not overtly unfair that he is allowed to ram the safety in the chest while the reverse would have drawn a flag.

Although Coleman wasn’t badly hurt on the play, the potential for a far worse injury exists for both players in this situation. Arguing otherwise suggests you possess either a flawed understanding of human physiology or logic. Pick one.

The truth of the matter is that the NFL breeds a sort of football conservatism that has everybody running scared over even the tiniest of changes. But after a season or two of a new rule, for the most part people get used to it. Take the NFL moving kickoffs back to the 35-yard line two years ago. Everybody was convinced it would ruin the game, but we have still been witness to some amazing special teams plays in that span. People stopped complaining because they realized that the change wasn’t really that bad.

In a time when were are still discovering the effects of head trauma and are still ill-equipped to diagnose 100% of concussions, it makes sense to tackle the issue from a preventive standpoint rather than a reactive one. You don’t fix head trauma after the fact. Our medicine can’t do that yet. So for now we are left with the next best option, and rules like this, while frustrating, are a step in the right direction.

Posted on March 21, 2013, in Eagles, Hank Mushinski, Posts, Sports Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You’ve obviously never played football. If you’re a running back and you initiate contact with your head up you’re likely to literally have your neck broken. Just because the mask bracket to the bottom of the mask isn’t the crown and gives you plenty of area to create contact doesn’t mean its a good idea. If they play professionally and get paid well for it. Let them decide how they want to make the contact

    • I’m not saying you should tilt your head all the way back and take it in the chin. That’s ludicrous. All you have to avoid doing is the very specific actions of 1) lowering your head and 2) forcibly thrusting the top of your helmet into the defensive player. That’s it. Frankly, using any part of your head to initiate contact is a bad idea, but enforcing that would be impossible. All they’re trying to take away the most dangerous type of contact, which is definitely initiating contact with your head down. Pretty much every time you see a guy paralyzed, it’s on a hit where he had his head all the way down. Here’s an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhRaRyTw1I0#t=1m15s Here’s another: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1ui7DL3Pmg#t=1m40s Both of these kids had their helmets dipped all the way down. I know neither were running backs, but the contact was the same type the NFL just outlawed.

      You’re right, I never played football. I played rugby. In rugby, you learn pretty quickly how to protect your head/neck while running and tackling. There are plenty of ways to initiate contact that don’t involve spearing.

  2. I read this paragraph completely concerning the difference oof most recent and previous technologies,
    it’s remarkable article.

  1. Pingback: Crown of Helmet Rule – Reactions, Implications, and Questions (video questions!) « BearDownBlog.net

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