Jackson wary of new rule for backs


Hue Jackson

Updated: 3:05 p.m.

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Amid an ESPN report on the final day of the NFL meetings Wednesday that the Bengals were the only team to vote against a new rule that prohibits running backs from using the crown of their helmets outside the tackle box, running backs coach Hue Jackson apparently agrees with club president Mike Brown.

"It's going to be a hard rule to coach," Jackson said Wednesday morning before the vote. "It's how these guys have run since Pop Warner. Using their head and shoulders is all they know. Especially on the goal line and short-yardage."

It will now be a 15-yard penalty and a finable offense if a player who is more than three yards downfield or outside of the tackle box delivers a blow with the crown of his helmet. If the offensive and defensive player each lowers his head and uses the crown of the helmet to make contact, each will be penalized.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati's top running back, is the kind of back that Jackson says is going to be impacted heavily by the new rule.

"He's a power runner. He naturally drops his head and shoulders, drives, and comes out the other side," Jackson said. "That's where the power comes from. You see the way the best ones break tackles. They do it with their head and shoulders."

Jackson also thinks the new rule means that backs are going to be exposed to injuries in the chest and knee areas.

"It makes it very difficult to protect themselves," he said. "And there'll be more fumbles."

Jackson is certainly not the only one that feels that way. During the media breakfast for the NFC coaches Wednesday morning, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier raised the concern about exposing backs like his own Adrian Peterson to injury. 

"The little guys aren't going to be tackling the Adrian Petersons of the world up high, I can promise you that." Frazier said. "They're always going to try to get leverage and get their pads lower than his pads. That's what they're taught. From my vantage point, these running backs that have to get their pads down and aren't able to protect themselves, may open up yourself to potentially lower body injuries, or at least shoulder injuries if you start just trying to avoid hits with your shoulder. Time will tell. It seems like it could open up the running backs to other injuries."

In an interview Tuesday before the vote, Brown said he was inclined not to vote for it because it has been such a fabric of the game.

"We're all for safety and make it as safe as we can devise," Brown said. "The issue on this one is hard to measure. Just how much of an impact does it have on safety? There are no statistics in front of us as far as injuries. It makes me wonder if we have properly quantified it to make a decision on it now.

"In the past we have actions that have crept into the game that have been taken out. In the old days we had the clothesline and then the head slap. They crept into the game and then they were removed and it was good. In this case I don't know if we are talking about anything that has crept into the game at all. It is something football has had as long as I remember."

Brown is also hesitant to saddle the officials with another instant judgment call, such as with the hits on defenseless receivers.

"I view it as a difficult, if not impossible, play to call," Brown said. "We had a lot of this with the secondary plays last year. I didn't think those calls were always right.

"These plays happen in a flash. They're just a reaction to people. Did he hit him with his shoulder pad? Did he hit him with his helmet? Was it intended? That's difficult to sort out. I'm not confident we should add another discretionary call. We're asking an awful lot of our referees to make those kind of calls. Yet it is counterbalanced by concerns for safety."

The man that Brown thinks is the greatest runner of them all, former Browns running back Jim Brown, said here Monday that he never used his helmet and Mike Brown agreed. He doesn't think any back is purposefully using his head.

"Jim Brown was powerful and had a technique that I have not seen done by others. He would hit people with his shoulder and forearm and then press them down and then fade away from it and would accelerate. He was so strong, had such good balance," Mike Brown said. "He didn't run into anyone with his helmet. I don't know that I can identify running backs who are purposely running into people with their helmets. To me they might react and try to protect themselves. They might dive to the goal line or try to get a first down but I don't see them as a technique looking to steamroll someone by hitting them with their helmet. They may have examples that I am not familiar with."

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, co-chairman of the NFL competition committee and a stout believer in the change, said he had a 15-minute conversation with one of his former running backs before heading into Wednesday's news conference to explain the rules changes and where the NFL confrmed the vote.

Eddie George, a prototypical power back, told Fisher he thought the rule would be difficult to enforce and make it hard to play the game. But after the talk, Fisher said George changed his mind.

"We're not going to allow the runner not to protect himself. Or (not) to drop his head to protect himself. It's delivering the blow," Fisher said.

"There's no rule that prevents the runner from using his facemask or the hairline. What we're talking about is keeping the head up … we've said numerous times about bringing the shoulder back into it."

League officials said they watched every game in two weeks this past season (Week 10 and Week 16) and that it would have been called 11 times and it was about 50-50 between the offense and the defense. It's a 15-yard penalty and a spot foul, so the entire play wouldn't be wiped out on offense.

Also backing the rule is head coach Marvin Lewis, a member of the NFL Competition Committee. On Sunday he talked about why he supported it.

"I think it's the way football was coached from the time we started playing, the way we were instructed to play, so the game has evolved over time because of the size, strength and speed of players," Lewis said. "It's changed a little bit and you were always taught to never lower your head and have your eyes down at the ground. You want to play football with eyes and head up. It is a change, but there have been a lot of positive changes done over time that make it easier all the time to both play, coach it and for everyone to understand."

Fisher is confident the play isn't going to be "over-officiated."

"The key thing here is you can deliver a blow with shoulder, with face, with hairline; it is just deliberately striking with the crown (that's been outlawed)," Fisher said on NFL Network. "The helmet is a protective device. We know there is going to be helmet-to helmet contact. The running back has an opportunity to protect the football, lower the head, lower the shoulder, as long as he doesn't load up and strike with the top of the helmet. That is also the case with a defensive player. There will be forthcoming plays and examples of things we want to get out of the game and when you see them, you will say 'I understand why.' ... This is not going to change the game, it is not going to be over-officiated. We are just protecting the players against themselves."

The rule may have passed, but it's a hard sell. ESPN.com quoted Bears running back Matt Forte tweeting, "Wow so they really passed that rule...last time I checked football was a contact sport. Calling bank now to set up my lowering the boom fund."

The Bengals and the rest of the NFL also decided to tank "The Tuck Rule." As a former quarterback, Brown said he was never comfortable with the number of plays that were ruled incomplete passes even though they hardly looked like passes at all.

"The tuck rule is one of those things you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Brown said. "There is something to be said that what they're doing now that's different is instant replay. You can go upstairs and look. But, again, you're going to have controversial calls because you have to be a mind reader. You have to read intent. How do you know? I don't know. But I think you can get a better read on it with the replay that we have now."

The owners also passed the "Jim Schwartz Rule." Under the new rule, a coach who challenges an automatic reviewable play is charged a timeout when he throws a challenge flag. If the play is overturned, the coach gets back the challenge. It remains a 15-yard penalty if a coach challenges a booth reviewable play. Under the previous rule, if a coach challenged a reviewable play, there would be a 15-yard penalty and no review.

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