NEW YORK -- NFL owners alarmed the football world in March when they slammed through a rule that promised 15-yard penalties and threatened ejections for something that is entwined with the game itself: using the helmet in contact. Coaches freaked over how to rewire ingrained techniques. Officials worried about distinguishing incidental contact from illegal hits. Players were skeptical that the rule could change anything except penalty and fine totals.
In the ensuing months, however, league executives have worked to soothe those concerns and pull back on expectations for the rule's impact in 2018. Those who attended a May 1 meeting at NFL headquarters in New York were relieved to hear details that suggest the rule is intended to be applied only in obvious and/or flagrant circumstances. Although some gray area remains, the NFL's helmet rule is best considered as the first step of a long-term strategy to -- in now-ubiquitous league jargon -- take the head out of the game.
"I don't want to say it was communicated poorly by the NFL," said retired NFL center Matt Birk, who was one of eight former players at the gathering. "But it needed further clarification. And they didn't really provide that until the meeting."
The Los Angeles Chargers' Anthony Lynn, one of six head coaches in the room, offered a two-word reaction as he left the meeting.
"Thank God," Lynn said. "I just feel like after [the initial announcement] that we were jumping into this headfirst. I was like, 'Wow. Slow down. Let's do this in phases.'"
Indeed, the NFL's March 27 announcement implied a rule that would push far beyond the scope of the NCAA's controversial targeting prohibition. But after sitting in on much of the May 1 meeting, and after interviews with multiple participants, I'm relatively certain it will have less reach than anticipated. On multiple occasions that day, competition committee chairman Rich McKay pointed to the language of the rule to derive its intent.
As approved by owners, the rule states: "It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent."
The key word in that sentence, McKay said, is "to."
It's fair to be skeptical of any rule that needs to be diagrammed in that manner. But it was McKay's way of saying that lowering the helmet in itself will not draw a foul. The rule requires a clear intent to use the helmet as a weapon and, importantly, requires actual contact to reach its threshold.
This interpretation means that running backs shouldn't be penalized when they lower their heads to brace for contact. It allows quarterbacks to drop their heads as they dive for the line to gain on a sneak. And it leaves the NFL in a familiar space: trying to eliminate the violent plays it has long targeted.
A running back who lowers his head and uses his helmet to bowl over a defensive back can expect a flag. So can a linebacker who takes a running start and drives his helmet into the chest of a receiver. The most egregious of these hits will be subject to ejection; one example emphasized during the meeting was Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan's helmet-to-helmet hit on Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams in Week 4 of the 2017 season.
Precise standards for ejection will be finalized later this month, as will the process for using replay to ensure that ejections were merited. But the May 1 discussion centered as much around what will remain legal as it did on what will not.
"There are certain things that are incidental contact and just part of this sport," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "There are certain things you just have to live with and be OK with. And then there is the part of our role and responsibility. What do we want to coach out and then the players have to adjust to? Some of these things are more long-term.
"To think that an individual player will make some of the adjustments between May 1 and the start of the season, when this is what I have done all of my life? That's unrealistic. That's truly unrealistic."
In fact, the meeting adjourned with a general understanding that interior line play will go largely unaddressed by this rule, at least this season. It's possible that officials could penalize a defensive end who blatantly bores his helmet into the chest of an offensive tackle, or vice versa. But concerns about flagging linemen whose helmets make contact with an opponent during "trench warfare" have largely subsided, Birk said, because there is "nothing" that can be done to avoid it.
"They're not looking to enforce anything there from what I can tell," Birk said. "It's line play, and there is some context there, but there's a lot of plays where guys are hitting and their heads are down. What we had was more of just a really good discussion. It wasn't so much [the league] saying we need to change something. We were like, 'What do you want the guy to do?' ... I think it's just awareness and a long view. It was just time to start talking about it. From what I understand, there is no plan of action for that now."
None of this is to downplay the cumulative impact of a frenetic offseason response to a worrisome 2017 season. The NFL's growing health and safety office, headed by chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills, has taken a prominent seat at the decision-making table after reporting 291 concussions -- the highest total on record -- last season. A frightening back injury to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, during a particularly violent Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13, also alarmed owners.
Research presented by Sills and Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president of health and safety initiatives, showed higher levels of concussions on plays involving contact with the helmet of at least one player. In 2017, a concussion occurred on one of every two plays involving helmet-to-helmet contact, according to internal league data. Owners, motivated by player safety or future lawsuits or a combination thereof, ordered immediate action.
The helmet rule, along with a redesigned kickoff and prohibitions on 10 helmet models, are the tangible results. But as the discussion moved from vision to implementation, the league has accepted a more nuanced approach to what's possible in 2018.
The final and perhaps most important step will be pulling in game officials, who will gather this weekend for their annual spring clinic. The NFL's 2018 vision for the helmet rule, according to Vincent and others, is only a handful of ejections and flags thrown when officials are certain that the helmet has been lowered with an intent to make contact when contact otherwise could have been avoided.
Game officials are expected to hear the same message this weekend, understanding it as the most realistic step in what could be more stringent helmet-related rules in the future.
There are more than 120 game officials on NFL rosters, and it's reasonable to expect some bumps in achieving a universal interpretation. But Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn might have explained the 2018 vision most succinctly, suggesting that players should avoid making contact after lowering their helmet when there is "time and space" to do so.
"If you have time and space to think it through," Birk said, "and you still have someone going in with their head lowered and in a linear position, to me that is the kind of thing we need to discourage and ultimately try to remove from the game. When guys have enough time to do it the correct way, and they don't for whatever reason, those are the things that are fixable and also enforceable -- when you, as Dan Quinn said, have that space and time."
Initial alarm originated from those who presumed flags on players who don't have the space or time to avoid contact. Current expectations mitigate those concerns. Game officials will begin setting the tone when the preseason begins in August, but unless the existing message is lost along the way, the 2018 helmet rule won't be nearly as far-reaching as once feared. Stand down.