Under the Radar Rule Changes that Threaten Fooball as We Know it


As the dog days of summer come to an end, NFL fans have begun to wake from hibernation and excitement about the new season grows with teams kicking training this week. Yet behind all the well-worn storylines of the offseason, two significant rule changes lurk mostly undiscussed. The NFL has done an outstanding job keeping so many stories hot and rolling that it is easy to get caught up discussing them before even glancing over the entirety of these rules – how could you not? The Browns might be good, the Patriots may be depleted, and Jimmy Garoppolo still hasn’t lost a game in the NFL. However the kickoff is about to look completely different than it ever has before, and it might truly be on the verge of disappearing.

Beyond the kickoff changes, a new rule about the “lowering of the head” will be enforced that could completely change the landscape of the NFL. Instead of mostly useless hype, and faux fantasy insights fans actually a reason to watch the preseason before paying up for NFL Sunday Ticket this 2018 season.   Instead of finding ways to embrace football as a dangerous sport while making it safer the NFL has always opted to make football look a little less like football. This latest iteration of the rules threatens to bring the game to a much softer, more rugby-like sport than ever before. “It’s ridiculous. Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you’re going to get a ticket,” said 49ners cornerback Richard Sherman of the new rule. While Rugby is tougher than a two dollar steak in its own right, it isn’t anything like the football we’ve come to love and cherish. This isn’t the first blow to the game we’ve seen over the years, but it might be the most impactful. Nothing is harder to predict than NFL referees, and the NFL has done nothing to help their case. How much does the NFL really care about head trauma? Based on how they treat situations like that of Russell Wilson popping in and out of the famous blue tent many fans aren’t putting much stock into the rule change, yet given how flag happy refs have been for ticky-tack fouls such as “hands to the face” one can’t help but be concerned.  

The new rule states: “It is a 15-yard foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”  Maybe the refs won’t call it, but if they do there will be laundry all over the field. Over the years we’ve lost everything from catches to hard hits, now this. NFL fans have been openly frustrated, but perhaps the roots of most of their frustration come from the fact the product on the field is no longer the same as the one they have come to love. Storied Raven Terrell Suggs told Tyler Dunne of bleacher report “Us as gladiators, that comes with it. My mom doesn’t want me to do it anymore, but I signed up for this. You know what I’m saying? Whatever comes with it, I’ll take it.” Unlike the NHL which hires former players to make and officiate these decisions, the NFL has suits more concerned about their perceived PR than the product they are putting out.

In Hockey when a controversial hit occurs the NHL office often responds in a way to will have minimal impact on the game, while still dishing out punishment to players seen as dirty. With former “enforcer” George Parros in charge of player safety reviews, penalties and fines are looked at through a different lens. The NFL, on the other hand, punishes players for doing what the majority of them in their words “signed up for.”

Nobody wants the head-hunting days of the 70’s, but you’ll find few players defending these modern rules, and even fewer once running backs and offensive linemen start getting called for lowering their heads. Less than a decade ago there were certain teams you wouldn’t dare run passing routes across the middle of the field against. Now an offenses’ favorite place to attack is right up the gut.

“A perfectly clean hit.” For football fans everywhere that hit probably made you feel alive for a moment and then profoundly nostalgic the next. If you hit somebody that well in 2018 there will be yellow flags all over the field. Those hits were what made football the game that it was. Instead, we have 20-yard gains every other play and this. For those of us that were lucky enough to have seen football at its best, it is hard to stomach a 15-yard hands to the face penalty wiping out a perfectly good play.

This year’s super bowl was a prime example of how much the game has changed. The Eagles won, but the Patriots sure made it a close game. Only – it shouldn’t have been close, the Eagles should have blown the Patriots out in the first half and choked the life out of them in the 2nd. The only reason the Patriots kept it a close game was taking advantage of the modern rules and getting lucky with the fact the Eagles only decided to walk the line with those rules once.

After Brandon Cooks was knocked out of the game with a concussion, the Patriots started feeding the ball to Rob Gronkowski up the middle for 20-yard pops. Multiple times the Eagles safeties were in a position not only to prevent the catch, but make sure Gronk thought twice about coming across the middle for the rest of his career, and yet they sat back and let him make play after play.

Screenshot 2018-07-19 at 10.04.27 AMThe safety on the 34-yard line doesn’t even end up touching Gronk on this play.

In the second half, Gronk had 8 catches for over 100 yards and a TD. Largely because guys were waiting for him to make a catch before hitting him, and when they hit him they hit him low. Belichick moved him around the field, and McDaniels called a strong game however too often Gronk was given room to work.

Screenshot 2018-07-19 at 9.52.22 AM

Though the corner comes down from his zone to make a play, he still ends up holding off enough to give Gronk a chance at the ball but also to become comfortable over the middle where he tore the Eagles up in the third quarter. Look at how much space Gronk has here, think back to that Ray Lewis / Dustin Keller clip. Players know they can take advantage of a part of the field that was once feared. Fans marveled at Brady’s yardage, but all I could see was a soft defense playing a victim of the times.

The toughness aspect of football is lacking, and its defenders are few and far between. MMA continues to gain popularity and professional soccer players sustain far more concussions than NFL players, yet the NFL continues to take the brunt of the criticism for its brutality. Always seemingly in their own way, the NFL often make moronic decisions which draw criticism which is hard to defend (See nearly every player suspension over the last four years).  

Unfortunately, the NFL will continue to degrade this excellent sport by instituting rules and creating a culture that covers their ass and their bottom line. This is likely because the NFL cares very little about its players, and leave themselves open to lawsuits by mistreating and borderline abusing these players. Basic compensation for a gladiator sport such as guaranteed contracts and lifetime medical coverage are ideas that make the ruling billionaires balk. Yet how different would the NFL be without constant tension between all parties? If the owners made a few simple concessions, their profits would likely increase in the long run and they’d have players actually backing the league. Instead, while at the top of their game the NFL is doing everything in its power to cap their success, and set up other leagues to dominate in the future.

If the NFL continues to be a detriment to the product on the field and alienate its fan base through clownish decision making these small-time spring leagues might become more popular than anticipated. While other sports climb in popularity the most interesting threat to the NFL may be other football leagues. With two new leagues set to pop up over the next couple of years, the NFL may not have to worry now, but should have an eyebrow raised at what these leagues may offer regarding alternatives in the future. Once the NFL merges with the American rugby league watching XFL may seem preferable. Especially if these leagues become attractive to higher caliber players as the NFL continues to punish them and underpay them.

As the preseason approaches it is difficult to stifle the excitement, yet fear and loathing can’t help but bubble under the surface knowing how much of the game has been lost and how much more these businessmen want to take. The ire of fans and players alike may be enough, but for now with the profit margins still growing the NFL is unlikely to hear any of us.

So as I sit back and watch game film to write team previews, I can only hope that these new rules are more words than they are action. I wrote this piece in hopes of sparking a conversation, who knows, maybe we as fans can be loud enough to make an impact on the game we all love.


If you’d like to continue this conversation with me on twitter feel free to @me @ZachDaDraftKing or email me at zachzerr@zachz-photography.com