FOXBORO -- We're only two weeks into the preseason, yet the reaction to the words "lowering the head to initiate contact" echoing over NFL PA systems already elicit a predictable reaction.
Confusion. Exasperation. Anger.
For some, it's the rule's intent that is the issue. Some are looking for more consistency in how the rule is called. Some, it seems, may have an idea of what officials are looking for but aren't quite sure.
Some still have an issue with what the wording of the rule actually entails.
Richard Sherman, for instance, fits in that final group.
This may read like semantics to some, but the rule isn't about "leading" with the head. It's about "lowering" the head to initiate contact. That's an important distinction, because as Sherman explained it, even perfect form tackles are led with the head.
It's the posture of the head and neck that's the issue. And while there are still members of the Patriots who are unclear on when this penalty will be whistled and when it won't be, the coach thinks it shouldn't be much of an issue because he doesn't coach his players to lower their heads.
“From my standpoint, there’s really — it’s not a change for us, not a change for our coaching staff,” Belichick told WEEI's OMF show on Monday. “We’ve never taught tackling with the crown of our helmet, putting our head down, leaning our body forward in that type of position. I don’t think fundamentally that’s a good position to be in. It’s not effective. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong besides getting hurt, and that’s an important one.
"We’ve always tackled and blocked with our head up, and our eyes open, and our head back, so we can see what we hit. That’s the only way I’ve ever coached it. If we do it that way, then we’ll be within the rules. That’s what we’ve tried to teach.
"There’s a lot of bang-bang plays where you have to react quickly and try to make a tackle or make a block or get an extra yard, and sometimes instinctively a player will put his head down. I think there’s certainly more of an awareness of that because of the way that it’s called. Fundamentally, we’ve never taught that in any technique, so that’s not a big change for us."
I've spoken to several players on the subject, and while they may not love the consistency with which the penalty has been called, they don't take the stance that what they've been asked to do is impossible.
"It's possible. I try to hit with my head up," said linebacker Marquis Flowers. "There's going to be bang-bang plays. There's going to be different situations where it happens. But I try to hit with my head up. All I can do is take the coaching. Look at situations. Look at how they're calling it. Play football."
"Keep...your...head...up," is how linebacker Elandon Roberts reacts to questions about the rule.
Eric Rowe acknowledged it was possible to make hits without lowering the head, though he admitted he may have an easier time keeping his head out of things because he's a cornerback.
"In my opinion, it depends on your position," he said. "Linebackers take different angles than I do. My angle is usually at an angle, whereas a linebacker is head-up. I'm rarely head-up with anybody. I don't have to use my head. I can just use straight body."
Ex-Pats linebacker Rob Ninkovich, now as a television analyst for Patriots preseason games, said on last week's telecast that he wasn't looking for big hits as a player so he tried to be a head-up tackler.
Regardless of positions, Belichick made it clear that his staff coaches tackling with a certain technique. Under the new rules, that technique is still legal.
"We’re not coaching anything any differently, and I’m not coaching anything any differently than I’ve ever coached it since I’ve been in the National Football League," Belichick told OMF. "We’ve never coached head down, top of the head, don’t see what the contact is and put yourself in a position where you could have a serious injury and not do your job. So, how it’s officiated and so forth, that’s something the officials and Al Riveron and the NFL office can talk to you about. I really — that’s not my job. I can’t answer how hard it is or isn’t to officiate. I just know what we’re coaching, and that’s what we coach."
The officiating portion of it is still difficult to get around for some, though the league has made it clear that it will over-officiate these plays in the preseason to have a library of plays to analyze -- and to assess as correct or incorrect calls -- before the regular season begins.
Patriots safety Jordan Richards was flagged for a lowering-the-head penalty against the Eagles last week that might get a second look from officials before the regular season begins. If that is the type of hit that will be legislated out of the game, the penalty could end up dominating games and helping to dictate outcomes.
“We’ve got to play within how they’re calling it, and that’s how they were calling it for our game on Thursday night,” Richards told reporters Monday. “It seems watching other games, they’ve been a little bit more, I think, lax on that. I don’t know if lax is the right word, but a little more willing to hold that flag in their pockets.”
"It’s going to be called,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I could do a long interview, you could write articles — it doesn’t matter if I go out there and I get flagged three times. It’s something, I think, that everyone has to adjust to. We’re all out there.
"Sometimes, ‘Oh, OK. That’s what we watched. I get it.’ Then there’s other times you’re like, ‘I don’t really know.’ So I think we all kind of see what they’re looking for. You’ve got to try to adjust and play to that."
McCourty, someone Belichick has called one of the best tacklers he's ever coached, made two clean tackles against the Eagles -- both of which came in open space -- that the league may turn to as prototypical examples of what they're looking for.
As far as Belichick is concerned, that's how they coach it.
"Regardless of what they call or don’t call, [lowering the head is] a technique that we don’t teach and we don’t subscribe to, so whether they call it or don’t call it, we don’t want to do it because I don’t think it works very well," Belichick said. "We’re not teaching that. If a player does that, we want to instruct him how to do it properly, not only for his safety but also so he can fundamentally make the block or make the tackle or take on a block or whatever it is we’re talking about."