The freakout is underway. Midway through the 2018 preseason, the NFL's new helmet rule is sowing panic and raising irrational fears of repercussions up to and including football's demise. So, if you're engraving football's tombstone, let me ask you a question: Do you know how many times an official has thrown a flag for a violation of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 of the NFL rulebook, which prohibits players from lowering their heads to initiate contact with their helmet against an opponent?
A grand total of 51. That's 1.55 times per game over 33 games.
Looked at another way, that's a flag thrown for leading with the head on 1.03 percent of the 4,944 snaps, including special teams, we have seen through two weeks of the preseason.
We all have our limits, but meltdowns should be saved for something bigger than 1.03 percent.
This rollout, in fact, has played out in a predictable way. And the likely next steps also seem less scary, less invasive and less game-changing than you might think, even after the competition committee issued the first of what could be several narrow clarifications Wednesday.
To no real surprise:
• Complaints about the new rule leading to the game's demise have been overblown relative to the actual frequency of the calls, especially at a time when officials are admittedly overcalling the foul as part of the rollout. Referee Brad Allen, after all, said earlier this month that the league wanted to "err on the side of putting the flag on the ground" during the preseason.
For context, consider that in 2017, there were, on average, 3.2 offensive holding flags, 2.02 false start flags and a combined 2.58 flags for defensive holding, illegal contact and defensive pass interference per game.
At its worst, which is what I would expect we will come to call this preseason, the helmet rule wouldn't be close to the most visible penalty in the game. It's difficult to square those numbers with the commencement of flag football, as San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman suggested was underway during an understandably anxious moment last weekend.
There is no "make adjustment" to the way you tackle. Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic And should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) August 19, 2018
• The application has been focused on defensive backs, dousing fears that players at other positions would be targeted for unavoidable hits. This helps explain the outsized reactions of players such as Sherman and Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger. Of the 51 flags, 31 have gone against defensive backs. Nearly 81 percent have gone against defensive players overall, along with three against the offense and none against offensive linemen. Seven have occurred on special teams.
• The failure to target a single offensive lineman squares with what league officials were saying as early as May 1. It is difficult for officials to see extended sequences of interior line play, and senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron has said there would be a call only if the official could see the illegal contact from beginning to end.
• Crews are calling it differently, an unfortunate but fully expected consequence of officiating that has existed for as long as we've tracked their calls. The crews of referees Bill Vinovich and John Parry have called six such penalties in two games. On the other hand, John Hussey's crew has called one and Pete Morelli's hasn't called any, both in two games.
• Officials have made mistakes, some of which Riveron has acknowledged in videos released to the public. (Among them: A flag thrown against Arizona Cardinals safety Travell Dixon during Week 1 of the preseason.) Per ESPN's Dan Graziano, the NFL identified 11 of the 51 flags as erroneous. This should not come as a shock. Because they are human, officials have made regular mistakes of all shapes and sizes throughout NFL history. They will continue to do so, at least until the robots mobilize.
• Ejections have been relatively rare. There has been one disqualification, of then-Indianapolis Colts safety Shamarko Thomas, and it was upheld on replay. One ejection in every 33 games projects out to 7.7 per season.
• There has been substantial confusion about what the rule prohibits and still allows. There can still be contact by a player with his helmet, as long as it is "up" and not lowered in a way that makes a linear posture from the top of his head through the back. The league would like players to "get the head out of the game," but it is penalizing them only when they drop and initiate contact with it. The angst has been elevated by an unrelated point of emphasis on roughing the passer, one that created a well-shared clip of what seemed a standard sack by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Antwione Williams. The sequence helped fuel a more general and oft-cited sense that officiating is in some way out of control, instead of moving through its usual preseason adjustment period.
To be clear, the helmet rule is going to affect the 2018 season in ways that most of us would prefer it wouldn't. The current preseason pace projects to an extra 396.8 new flags per season, after consecutive years in which the NFL had almost exactly the same number of penalties: 4,044 in 2017 and 4,048 in 2016. Even if the pace slows in the regular season, and everything else stays the same, the league is headed for a significant bump in total penalties and the play stoppages that go along with them. More significantly, because it is a 15-yard penalty, that 1.55 average would project to an extra 23.25 penalty yards per game and 5,952 per season. In 2017, offensive holding was the only foul category to average more than 20 penalty yards per game -- and that was with nearly twice as many calls. In essence, two helmet-rule flags carry the same weight as three for offensive holding.
And in some ways, I think the players and coaches are right when they suggest that hitting the way the rule requires at all times -- with the head up -- is not football as we know it. The NFL actually agrees, and it is overtly attempting to change the way the game is played, for reasons it says are rooted in player safety. This isn't a secret. Riveron has said repeatedly that the league wants this technique to trickle down to college, high school and youth levels. Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee and Atlanta Falcons president/CEO, said players must find a way to change what he knows is the approach many of them have taken for their entire careers.
From a historical sense, McKay likened this episode to when the league began instituting protection for defenseless players and tightening rules on pass defense in 1995.
"In 1994 and 1995, we heard, 'We'll never be able to stop the pass again,'" McKay said. "We heard, 'I don't know how you play defense like this.' It was change and it was hard. We've had some players who have played this game since they were young men, and that's the way they have always played. There is no question that it's hard on them. I'm not minimizing that it's not easy for them, because it isn't. But it is a change we have to make, like many changes we've made before."
We can reasonably guess what's going to happen next. Preseason flag totals, and controversies, are going to continue at an uncomfortable level. (If you consider 1.03 percent uncomfortable.) Then, if historical trends continue, we'll see that the numbers have settled in through a combination of adjustment by officials and players. Remember the 2014 preseason, when the league made illegal contact and defensive holding a point of emphasis? Flags for those fouls increased by 500 percent in those preseason games compared with the 2013 preseason. By the end of the 2014 regular season, the increase had slowed dramatically. By that point, the increase had dropped to 72 percent more than the 2013 regular season -- much higher and certainly impactful but nothing resembling the preseason chaos.
No one can say for sure that helmet-rule flags will slow down starting in September. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said earlier this week that "no one has told me" that officials will back off when the regular season begins. I'm certain he's telling the truth. Of course they don't tell you that they're going to back away, but that's often the end result. The chances of it happening do have precedent in NFL history. Even without a slowdown, the current frequency falls far short of a red alert. Hang in there. We can do this. We'll get through it together.
(All penalty statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information.)