Some of you may not know but there are a bevy of football players from the 60’s and 70s whose brains are damaged beyond repair due to the rigors of the NFL. The game so much more physical in that era with illegal blows to the head going without reprimand, clotheslines and the use of other limbs to tackle a player that would be illegal today.
Fast-forward to the last decade and while the game is a lot cleaner, we still as fans scream and cheer when a player gets obliterated with a blow to the head. Little do we know, that every blow to the head, every incidental trucking forward that a running back does to gain an extra yard on a defender, is another step towards brain trauma and more law suits against the NFL.
With the increased proliferation of head injuries, the new rule preventing ball carriers from leading with their helmets in open space is not without controversy, however it is absolutely necessary. Despite our love for watching ball carriers gain extra yards by bulldozing their way forward with their helmets into the opposing defenders chest, shoulder or helmet, these are the type of vicious blows that NFL owners are trying to remove from the game. We have seen already some of the angst from past and current players.
It is relatively easy to see why the running backs are so mystified as to why this rule was adopted. They see it as “old guys” who have never carried a ball or been in that situation, making a decision on a fundamental part of the game that they have never dealt with. Conversely, every runner has been taught to get low and it is a natural reaction to dip your head and protect your chin in order to help move a pile or for a player to gain extra yardage (This rule specifically hurts really big backs like Brandon Jacobs as they already have a hard enough time getting low). The NFL used a flurry of examples such as Trent Richardson knocking off Kurt Coleman’s helmet and soul out of him. If the rule had been implemented last season, it would fit the necessary criteria to be penalized: The infraction would have happened in the open field, 3 yards passed the line of scrimmage and Richardson delivered a deliberate blow to the helmet of the player. The flag would have been a 15 yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, so essentially it would have erased Richardson’s gain and moved the Browns offense back 15 yards. Listening to Jeff Fisher’s explanation of the rule, only deliberate blows to the head with the crown of the helmet, like the one Richardson gave, will be the one’s outlawed. The same criteria will apply for defensive players.
From one Browns running back of the present to one of the past, Jim Brown known by many as the greatest running back, let alone player of all time was not necessarily opposed to the rule. He alluded to a time when he played and players would never lead with their helmets. How could they? During an age where plastic helmets had not been implemented for long, leading with your head would more than likely cause a massive gash in your skull. Brown also stated that the use of the shoulder, and even more prevalent the use of your forearms to push back a player, was the best way to create space and gain extra yardage. As much as you may not like the rule, when one of the most physical runners of all time makes a statement like this, reflecting a time when football was extremely physical, it makes you need to think back at the rule and what the real reasons are for its establishment.
While it is easy to tell a runner to learn a new way to run, it will be hard to execute. I have heard John Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher both say that no coach has ever taught a player to lead with their helmets. While it is true, where did this start? With players getting bigger and stronger on both sides of the ball, there may have been neglect in technique. Defenders do not form tackle anymore. Long are the days when as a youth football player, you were taught to put your head low to the side of the ball carrier’s body and wrap around to tackle. With players getting bigger, it is simply too easy to use their helmets and propel all their force to a damaging blow to the head which will cause momentum for the team and potentially knock out a player. Similarly for runners, the use of the shoulders and forearms was the prevailing technique used for backs along with stiff arms and the good old juke move. The bigger the players got, the more technique has gone by the wayside.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not like the rule, but I understand why it is implemented. NFL owners and the rest of the league are facing so much legal backlash from former players and other organizations. Class action lawsuits are happening at an alarming rate every time we hear of a player who is losing their memory or even worse, is taking their life such as the late great Junior Seau did. Studies done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health show that NFL players are 3 times more likely than any other athletes to die from brain disease. How can people honestly expect the NFL to not react to such statistics. The mounting pressure is a sign that the league must change its ways, or the NFL will cease to exist. It is very easy to turn a blind eye to the new rule and think that the NFL and Goodell are going back to their “No Fun League” ways, however, this rule as well as the infraction for hitting a defenseless receiver is being done to preserve the integrity of the game, its safety and the overall league for years to come. The new rule will be hard to implement from a play-to-play and game-to-game basis. There will be an abundance of ambiguity and referees will need to take extra time during the game with caucuses to make sure that they get the call right. Ultimately it is worth it if we have a few less concussions in the league and save a few more lives. As of right now, the NFL needs to take a stance: Continued brain trauma and lawsuits with the eventual removal of the game we love, or take measures to ensure player safety. I will take the former over the latter.