By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Once upon a time, the NFL had a rule that prohibited players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact. This long ago time was … August. Of 2018.
Now in October of 2018, it’s beyond clear that despite the NFL claiming this past summer that it would be enforced, the rule is a thing of the past.
An unfortunate reminder of that reality was hammered home on Sunday afternoon in Seattle, when Rams receiver Brandin Cooks made while crossing over the middle of the field. Cooks instinctively lowered his head upon seeing safety Tedric Thompson, and Thompson likewise lowered his own head as he went to lay a hit on the ball carrier.
The resulting helmet-to-helmet collision was violent, and it left Cooks appearing to be lying unconscious on a football field for the second time in his last six NFL games.
For Cooks, the result of the hit was significant. He suffered his second serious concussion since February, and his third documented concussion since 2015. The hits to the head are adding up for the 25-year-old.
For the NFL, it might be time to actually confirm that the new rule instituted for the 2018 season has indeed been eliminated from existence.
The rulebook states plainly: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”
In the Thompson-Cooks hit, it appears both players would have been guilty of the infraction.
As most football fans remember, officials called this new penalty quite often early in the preseason — 51 times in the first 33 preseason games, to be precise. The reaction from analysts, fans, players and coaches was one of puzzlement and anger. The very fabric of football was at stake, according to critics.
Clearly, playing the sport of football without being able to lower one’s head is next to impossible. And the parade of penalty flags proved that.
But the NFL insisted that the rule must remain. That was the headline, at least, when NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent announced that despite the outcry, “There will be no changes to the rule.” Vincent did note that “inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul.” It was a fairly significant distinction (though determining what constitutes inadvertent or incidental contact is a near-impossible task for on-field officials at full speed), but it came after Vincent insisted the rule would not be changing.
Since then, though, the enforcement of the rule has essentially disappeared. Each week, in almost every game, a clear-cut example of a player or players lowering helmets before collisions takes place in the open field. (The flag flying in the Cooks video was for defensive holding. Adding insult to injury for Cooks, the play that knocked him out didn’t even count.)
The enforcement of questionable roughing the passer penalties has seemingly taken over the collective attention of the football world, thus turning the lowering-the-helmet controversy from August into yesterday’s news.
The issue at hand here is not to argue for or against the rule. Clearly, the way it was hastily written at a league meeting last April was not a realistic rule for the NFL to enforce. Its impact in just a few weeks of preseason made that clear.
But the problem now is that the NFL has insisted that the rule still exists, despite the lack of penalty calls. And so, when a player gets left lying flat on his back, his arm raised in the air in the fencing response, as a gaggle of players dive around his lifeless body trying to recover his fumble, we are left to wonder: If the rule exists, why is it not enforced?
Obviously, a penalty flag would not have spared Cooks from any suffering on Sunday. But the idea behind the rule change was to alter player behavior on the field, in an effort to eliminate hits like these from taking place. If players know such contact is illegal, logic would dictate that players would try harder to prevent themselves from making such contact. In this case — at least theoretically — both Cooks and Thompson would have made better efforts to avoid a full-speed helmet-to-helmet collision. Perhaps Cooks would not have been able to continue playing the game, instead of being guided to the locker room.
Alas, the penalties aren’t being called, and behavior isn’t changing. All of the NFL’s efforts to purport itself as a league determined to improve player safety appear to have once again given way to the league’s efforts to try to limit negative publicity.