EXCLUSIVE: NFL to target offensive players on helmet-to-helmet hits
GREEN BAY – Adrian Peterson turned upfield and galloped on an angle between Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett and the sideline Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field. Rather than head out of bounds, the 6-foot, 1-inch, 217-pound Minnesota Vikings running back squared his shoulders and lowered his head to initiate contact with Burnett.
Because Peterson lowered his head, he contacted Burnett on the left side of his helmet, in the jaw area. The blow knocked Burnett down, and Peterson gained a few extra yards.
Typically, the defender is flagged or fined for a helmet-t0-helmet collision, regardless of who initiated the contact. As soon as next season, however such a play could draw a flag on the ball carrier, or be reviewed postgame and result in a fine.
"Yes, helmet-to-helmet contact between a runner and defender (especially in the open field) will be reviewed in the off-season by the Competition Committee," said Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of public relations, in an email statement to OnMilwaukee.com.
Such a play seems to fall in line with the evolution of rules that govern player safety and the prevention of head trauma.
"They talk about it almost every year," Aiello added. "It's an ongoing issue (when are hits to the head/neck area illegal?)."
Aiello cited an NCAA rule that is rarely enforced, but could set the precedent for a new NFL edict.
Under "Section 1. Personal Fouls" the NCAA states in Article 3 that "No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul. (Rule 9-6.)."
That rule is muddied however, by a variety of factors. Rule 9-6 applies to blocking below the waist, and rule 9-1-4 section II states that "As ball carrier A20 sweeps around the end and heads upfield, he lowers his head and contacts defensive end B89 who is trying to tackle him. The players meet helmet to helmet. RULING: No foul. Neither A20 nor B89 is a defenseless player and neither has targeted his opponent in the sense of Rule 9-1-3."
Rule 9-1-3 however, is specific to quarterbacks. The NCAA rules do allow for a review of such plays after the game, and allows for disciplinary measures, but such instances are rare.
Tom Fiedler, the assistant coordinator of the Midwest Football Officials Alliance which oversees the officiating in several Division III conferences, including the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, said such open field collisions don't fall under the defenseless player or targeting rules of the NCAA. But, it could.
"Theoretically, an offensive player could be called," Fiedler said. "It doesn't preclude it from happening. But it just doesn't happen very often. Have I seen it called? I've seen a lot of games this year and last year and it doesn't come to mind. But it could occur. The rules don't preclude it from happening."
If the NFL can clarify the targeting rule and implements it, players agree that the game will evolve much more rapidly into a practice they don't recognize.
The Competition Committee is made up of eight front office executives and coaches and recommends policy and rules changes. The committee often publicizes its agenda in advance of league meetings in late March.
"That would change the game entirely," said Packers running back Cedric Benson, who is currently on injured reserve with a foot injury. "We'd be playing flag football. Almost touch football. You go any further with this thing you're taking contact out of the game. It's just a part of it, I feel like. The whole concussion thing, all that stuff, I think they've taken great measures to protect the head and minimize that, but any further we're no longer playing NFL football."
Benson is a player known for his physical style of running, and has initiated contact with defenders by lowering his head in order to break tackles. He said the primary reason ball carriers lower their heads however is to protect their bodies, and to absorb contact in the shoulders.
"That would really be tough for running backs and receivers because the only thing we really have to protect ourselves is getting our pad level down," said Packers running back Johnny White, who is on injured reserve after suffering a concussion on special teams. "We preach that and practice it ever since coming up playing football. Just like for the (defensive) guys it's hard for them to pull up and hit somebody below the (head) it'd be hard for us to really consciously be able to stand straight up and let somebody hit you. That would put us in a pretty difficult spot."
Across the locker room, several of Benson and White's teammates on the defensive side have gotten flagged or fined for helmet-to-helmet or defenseless player collisions.
Linebacker Dezman Moses was flagged against St. Louis game and defensive backs Jerron McMillian and Tramon Williams were fined for helmet-to-helmet hits against the New York Giants and Vikings.
Yet they know that in the heat of the moment, not every lowered helmet is akin to targeting a defensive player.
"As a running back you want to protect yourself," McMillian said. "You're not going to give nobody a free shot. But, they're going to put their head down, so there's going to be helmet-to-helmet at some point in time. It's not purposefully done. It happens. It's football. For (Adrian Peterson) to be the runner that he is, he's not going to give nobody the freedom to hit him in an open area like that. It's just real tough. People try to protect themselves as well."
Several Packers defenders couldn't imagine playing the game without a ball carrier lowering his head in the open field and weren't sure it should be legislated out of the game. But, they did like the idea that an offensive player's actions could be reviewed after a game, and perhaps being assessed a fine if it was clear a defensive player was targeted with a helmet.
"I'm glad they're trying to evaluate," McMillian said. "I don't know if the evaluation means (it) will help them not fine us for helmet-to-helmet when they (the offensive player) do play a part in it."
Packers safety M.D. Jennings managed a slight smile when talking about the possibility of yet another new rule.
"I don't know how they can go about doing that," he said of its enforcement. "It's definitely changing the game. Ten, 15 years from now, who knows how the game will be."
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