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Penalties for lowering helmet expected to rise next season

Saints Cowboys Football

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) is hit by Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) and stopped short of the goal line in the first half of an NFL football game, in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)


The NFL has issued warnings and handed out fines, but penalties for lowering the helmet to initiate contact have not occurred on a regular basis this season. Officials have called only 15, while the league has sent out more than 100 warning letters and doled out several fines.

“The helmet rule was a major change to the game, in our mind,” Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said during the NFL owners meetings.

But McKay said there is “still quite a ramp-up” for players to get in compliance with the rule and for officials to figure out how to spot violations. The NFL expects the number of helmet rule penalties to increase next season.

“I believe you’ll see less of it on the field, but I do believe that you’ll see more calls because I think officials will have another year to understand what the mechanisms are,” McKay said.

Forty-six percent of concussions last season occurred on helmet-to-helmet hits, Dr. Allen Stills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said. That was the impetus for use-of-the-helmet rule.

The player-safety measure resulted in 51 helmet penalties the first two weeks of the preseason and predictions that the NFL had ruined the game as we know it. But then the calls stopped, with the NFL reacting instead with warning letters and fines.

On Sunday, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott became the first offensive player penalized for lowering his helmet. NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron has used plays from Raiders running back Doug Martin and Patriots running back Sony Michel as examples of illegal hits under the use-of-the-helmet rule.

“I do think players are adjusting,” McKay said. "[There’s] no question in my mind they’re adjusting. It doesn’t mean that the technique is out of the game, by any means.”