Leading-with-the-crown rule a good move but will create controversy

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

PHOENIX -- The NFL's goal in making plays in which a runner or defender leads with the crown of his helmet illegal is a good step toward increasing on-field player safety. But I'm willing to bet it comes at the cost of significant controversy when enforcing the rule.

There are plenty of reasons to like the rule, but the primary one (aside from simply disagreeing with Donald Trump out of principle) is it makes tackling more fundamentally sound, limits nasty head-first collisions and takes the head out of the game.

But in practical application? I bet it turns into a nightmare. It's already going to face scrutiny out of the gates. Running backs past and present spoke out against the new rule recently, although Jeff Fisher said he spoke with Eddie George about the change, and by the end of their 15-minute conversation, George was on board with the new rule.

I just look at examples the Competition Committee (and, specifically Fisher) offered up during their presentation of the rules changes on Tuesday.

The primary example of a play that this rule would cover was the vicious hit that running back Trent Richardson laid on safety Kurt Coleman during an Eagles-Browns game last year:

When Fisher and the Competition Committee showed the clip that you see above, there were significant groans from the media crowd. It's a brutal hit.

It's actually a great rule and one that makes complete sense. The issue for the league, however, will be enforcing it. The play you see above would be a 15-yard penalty on Richardson for leading with the top of his helmet. That's clear, and it's a good thing.

But there are other instances that are less clear. Like, for instance, when Stevan Ridley and Bernard Pollard met in a collision during the Patriots-Ravens AFC Championship Game.

This is not a penalty because, as I understand it, the player was lowering his head to protect the ball. Ridley also made contact with the side of his helmet and not the crown.

It's not that I necessarily disagree with this stance; it's just that it's clearly going to cause confusion.

This isn't because the rule isn't clear. It is. The runner must be three yards beyond the line of scrimmage and outside of the tackle box for this rule to come into play. It's quite explicit, really.

But what happens if officials start to err on the side of caution (as I believe they will invariably do)? What if this Ridley play draws two penalties -- one for Ridley and one for Pollard -- and the result is those penalties offsetting and the play being nullified?

The officials will be encouraged to huddle up and discuss whether or not they believe the play is worthy of getting flagged. That's a good thing. But the play also isn't reviewable. The officials could pick up the flags or just one of the flags. But once it's decided what they're doing, the result is locked.

When Ridley fumbled, the Patriots were trailing 21-13 and were moving downfield with about 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Ravens recovered the fumble, went 47 yards the other way and, one Joe Flacco touchdown later, the game was effectively over.

It's entirely possible multiple penalties would've been called on this play and the Patriots would've retained possession. It could've drastically altered the course of the game and, actually, the last few months.

Now it's entirely possible the refs will do well in calling this penalty. And, again, I think it's a good rule and one that is needed in the NFL.

But I fully expect plenty of confusion and controversy over the coming months once we see how it's enforced during live-game action.

 
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