With Eye on Concussions, NFL Adopts New Rule on Helmet Hits

March 22, 2013
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson runs over Philadelphia Eagles safety Kurt Coleman and causes his helmet to fly off during an NFL football game on Sunday, September 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Kevin Terrell)

Explore our database of official NFL concussions during the 2012-13 season.

In an effort to reduce the number of head injuries that occur on the field, NFL owners approved a new rule this week that will penalize players for striking opponents with the crown of their helmets.

The rule will prohibit runners and defenders from lowering their heads and hitting with their helmets when outside of the tackle box — the area of the field between the two offensive tackles. Such hits will result in a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. Hits inside the tackle box, however, will not fall under the new guidelines.

The change comes as the NFL is facing concussion litigation from nearly 4,000 former players. Amid growing concern over player safety, the new rule marks the league’s most high-profile initiative of the offseason to address head and neck injuries. Owners approved the proposal by a vote of 31 to 1, with Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown the lone holdout.

Despite the overwhelming approval of owners, the rule change fueled a barrage of criticism from current and former players alike. Running backs — who accounted for nearly one in nine concussions last season —  were among the most vocal, complaining the rule would limit their ability to protect themselves and safeguard the ball.

“Last time I checked football was a contact sport, said Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte on Twitter. “Calling bank now to set up my lowering the boom fund.”

Hall of Fame back Emmitt Smith said the rule “sounds like it’s been made up by people who have never played the game of football. Meanwhile, Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson told The Plain Dealer he felt responsible for the change. Richardson’s Week 1 hit on Kurt Coleman of the Philadelphia Eagles was shown to owners during deliberations over the rule. (Watch the hit below) Coleman was cut under his lower lip and across his nose on the play, but stayed in the game.

Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson runs over Philadelphia Eagles safety Kurt Coleman and causes his helmet to fly off during an NFL football game on Sunday, September 9, 2012.

“I feel like I made it bad for all the backs,” Richardson said. “I feel like it’s my fault.”

Others voiced concern that the rule would be too difficult for referees to officiate. A study by the league office of two weeks of the 2012 season found that 11 hits would have drawn a flag under the new rule.

Criticism aside, league officials stressed the importance of reducing head injuries, saying players and coaches will need to adapt.

“This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to emphasize player safety,” said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the NFL Competition Committee. “The players’ habits, their reactions, their responses to rule changes, you see it on the field. This is just another step in that direction.”

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