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The truth about the lowering the helmet rule may be hiding in plain sight

During the Cowboys' first preseason game, safety Jeff Heath turned his body at the last second while making a hit in order to be in compliance of the NFL's new helmet rule.

As the effort to understand the most prominent new helmet rule continues, here’s a thought: Why not simply give the rule the plain and obvious meaning of the words used to articulate it?

The new rule is simple: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” If it seems broad, that’s because it is broad. And as officials try to figure out how to apply it, there’s really nothing to figure out. If a player lowers his head to initiate contact with his helmet and makes contact with his helmet, it’s a foul.

There’s no requirement that the lowering of the head be prolonged or that the contact have a certain force or aggression. That’s what surprised Sunday Night Football rules analyst Terry McAulay, who was still a referee when he first became aware of the new rule.

“They didn’t put in the words forcible or punishing,” McAulay said regarding his first reaction to the new rule during a Tuesday visit to the #PFTPM podcast. “That was a real surprise to me that they went as far as they did right off the bat.”

The manner in which this rule was slipped onto the list of the Competition Committee’s proposals for the annual league meeting, with the rule change not disclosed to the media along with the other proposals and not even mentioned in any way until the vote to adopt it was final, reinforces the idea that, no matter what coaches previously have been told, the rule will be applied -- shocker -- as it is written.

So even if referees are erring on the side of throwing flags during the preseason, they may find out when getting feedback from the league office that they’re doing the right thing. Which would then confirm that someone wanted to revolutionize the game with a rule that ostensibly is aimed only at keeping the helmet from deliberately being used as a weapon but that will, based on the 21 words used to craft it, sweep much more broadly, forcing the helmet out of the game completely.