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By Ernie Palladino
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The NFL owners probably will vote on a rule change Wednesday that could make it illegal for offensive and defensive players to hit with the crown of the helmet when venturing outside the tackle box. This obviously applies to running backs and those defenders looking to knock them into next week.
There’s no telling if it will pass, or even if they’ll have to table the issue until the May meetings to gather more information. The owners’ opinion is split right now. So they put it off until today, and possibly beyond.
It really boils down to an attempt by the league to leverage its new-found concern over player safety against the still-pending lawsuits of roughly 4,200 players who claim they were never sufficiently warned about the dangers and long-term affects of head injuries.
Regardless of the NFL’s motivations — are they truly worried about the future of these valuable resources called players, or simply bending to pleas to de-gladiatorialize an inherently gladiatorial sport — the only thing for certain is that the proposed rule change has sparked a powerful debate that shows yet again that players need to be saved from themselves. The rule is certainly worth instituting despite the loud voices of opposition.
A lot of active running backs hate the idea, though Chicago’s Matt Forte took his dissatisfaction to another level when he tweeted Sunday that it’s “the most absurd suggestion of a rule change I’ve ever heard of.”
Hall of Fame running backs have joined the fray, too. Witness Emmitt Smith’s opinion of last Thursday.
“If I’m a running back and I’m running into a linebacker, you’re telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off? You’ve absolutely lost your mind.”
And from fellow Hall member Marshall Faulk: “Take the helmets off. Let’s be honest, if you think the helmet is a weapon, take it off.”
One can see the extreme opinions the rule has engendered. And that’s not even getting into how referees will police it, since the proposed change does leave room for “incidental” contact. That makes it basically a judgment call, always dangerous ground in what many correctly feel is already an over-officiated game.
Here’s the thing, though. Decreasing concussions has become a matter of the ends justifying the means. Perhaps this rule really is the league’s way of applying a public relations band-aid to a lawsuit sure to cost it millions upon millions of dollars. Doesn’t matter. The fact is, repeated concussions change lives. Proven fact. Even the NFL has come around to accepting that as fact after years of denial and delusion. And what better way to receive a concussion than to put one’s head down, eyes to the ground, while trying to push out that extra yard for a first down, or stop a guy from making it? Or maybe, even, to punish an opponent for a cheap shot earlier that game?
The purpose of the rule is to “put the shoulder back in the game,” according to rules committee member and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. And that’s not a bad idea, considering the new emphasis on concussions. But as in any of these rules changes, it will require some transitioning from the players and coaches alike.
It will require different training methods. No longer would coaches be able to encourage that running back to lead with his head, leaving it open for collision with another helmet worn by a similarly low-flying linebacker or defensive back. If they do, it’s 15 yards.
No matter the league’s motivation, any move to save the players from themselves is a good move. And this is a good move, if only because the greatest running back of them all supported it from the start.
“I didn’t use my head,” Jim Brown said. “I used my forearm, the palm of my hand, and the shoulder — and my shoulder pads. I wasn’t putting my head into too much of anything. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Take it from Brown. The one famous time he did, during the 1958 Eastern Conference championship game against the Giants, he got knocked out of the game. It left Brown with just eight yards, and legendary linebacker Sam Huff with a dented helmet.
That helmet resides in the Hall of Fame today, a testament to the physics of All-Pro collision.
Brown used other body parts as a battering ram, but not his head. Today’s players can adjust.
There shouldn’t be a need to put this off any longer. The owners should pass the rule — today — no matter the real reasoning behind it.
Are you for or against the proposal? Make your case in the comments…