When it comes to player safety, the NFL just can’t win.
This season, the league made several rule changes aimed at improving player safety, one being a modification to the tackle rule, which previously allowed players to lower their heads when attempting tackles. The new rule renders tackles where players lead with their heads illegal.
Teams have just four preseason games to adjust to the changes made by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a dangerously short period for defensive players to completely relearn how to tackle.
The official rule, according to NFL Operations, states, “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” This includes “lowering the head” or “initiating contact with the helmet to any part of an opponent.” Violating the rule would constitute a 15-yard penalty or an ejection for especially egregious violations.
The rule caused a stir before preseason even started, with experts fearing that the rule would be difficult to enforce. Former NFL referee and ESPN Rules Analyst Jim Daopoulos, for example, explained in an article for USA TODAY Sports that he was unsure how officials were going to call the tackle rule and predicted that they might be hesitant to issue these penalties at the beginning of the season, as the boundary between clean and illegal tackles is now very thin.
Against Daopoulos’ prediction — which, in retrospect, would have been sage advice — officials came out firing in the preseason, issuing many leading-with-head penalties, often inconsistently.
One of the first calls was made against San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert during the second week of the preseason against the Houston Texans. Though it appeared Mostert led with his shoulder while tackling running back Tyler Ervin, Mostert was issued an unnecessary roughness penalty — much to the chagrin of players, fans and even NFL agent Brett Tessler.
Some believe the rule’s problem lies in the inconsistency of its enforcement, while others, like 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, find the essence of the rule incorrect altogether.
“There is no ‘make adjustment’ to the way you tackle,” Sherman tweeted after the 49ers’ loss to the Texans. “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic And should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon.”
The new tackling rule incited similar discontent during Saturday night’s preseason matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars. During the first quarter, Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee suffered ligament damage in his knee from a low tackle by Falcons safety Damontae Kazee. Lee will now miss the entire season.
While Kazee was issued a penalty for lowering his head to initiate contact with Lee’s knee, Lee’s teammate Jalen Ramsey did not blame Kazee for the wide receiver’s injury. Instead, Ramsey blamed the tackle rule itself.
“You can’t be mad at 27 [Kazee],” Ramsey told Michael DiRocco of ESPN. “You have to be mad at the NFL; not mad at them, but that is how the rule is. People are scared to tackle normal because I guess they don’t want to do helmet-to-helmet and get flagged … Game-changing stuff could happen. You don’t really want to blame anyone, but you feel bad for him.”
In other words, Ramsey said he believed the new tackle rule has given defensive backs a case of the tackling yips — fearful of accruing penalties, some players may abandon the fundamentals of safe tackling that they have been taught their entire careers.
In more other words, Ramsey accused the NFL’s tackle rule, implemented for the sake of player safety, of causing even more injuries.
And Ramsey is probably right.
Players had no more than one round of training camp to adjust to the rule before it was implemented in league play, an incredibly short amount of time to retrain potentially a lifetime’s worth of muscle memory, during which players learned to tackle with their head up but not necessarily to lead with another body part.
Likely for this same reason, Major League Baseball, for example, did not implement more extreme pace-of-play rules despite a dire need to speed up the game. Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB Player’s Association did not implement pitch clocks this season in order to allow players to speed up the game without the hindrance of pitch clocks, Manfred had said in a statement.
Considering the fact that many players were dismayed with the very small changes Manfred did make, other leagues must be sensitive when altering rules that players have followed (or not followed) their entire lives.
While fans and players alike appreciate the league for attempting to improve player safety — in whatever small way that may be — changing the tackle rule looks more and more like a poorly planned PR move than an attempt at walking the fine line between preserving the essence of football and protecting players.
Instead, the league should have given players an entire season of notice before implementing the rule and then provided a trial run in preseason before officially approving it as a season-spanning rule.
Because right now, the tackle rule is confusing players and coaches at best and backfiring at worst.