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True significance of new helmet rule remains unknown

Texans coach Bill O'Brien discusses how challenging constructing a new offense is for Deshaun Watson and when Houston can expect its star quarterback back on the field.

More than a week after the NFL passed a new rule that appears to represent a seismic change to football as we know it, it’s still not clear to media and fans what the rule will, or won’t, be. It’s also not clear to coaches as to what the prohibition against lowering the helmet to initiate impact means.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said during a Wednesday visit to PFT Live. “I know that we had great meetings. For me, it was one of the best owners meetings that I’ve been to in the five years I’ve been the head coach here. There was a lot of give and take between the coaches and the league, the General Managers and the league, the owners and the league, and everybody. One of the things that we want to do, we want to try to continue to take the head out of the game. In order to do that, a lot of different conversations have to take place. I know that Rick McKay and the Competition Committee are working hard to develop the rule. I think basically the gist of the rule is we do not want the head to be used as a weapon. We’ve got to understand what that means relative to the plays that we’re looking at.”

So what are they looking at? The NFL has disputed the notion that the rule would have applied to fewer than 10 plays in 2017, with McKay calling the new rule a “substantial change” to the game. As O’Brien explains it, however, he seems to be under the impression that the new rule will encompass only a small handful of instances.
“Last year, there were five or six plays where you could say that that the head was used as a weapon,” O’Brien said. “There weren’t a ton of plays. We have to continue to work towards taking the head out of the game. That’s really something that we’re doing with the way we teach,with the way we officiate, the way we scheme. Everything that we do we’re thinking about those things. I think we’re on the right track, but I think it’s going to take a while to get that over the next 60 to 90 days get that rule written exactly the way we want it so that the officials can officiate it properly.”

Although the new rule seems to apply broadly to lower the helmet and leading with it, O’Brien seems to think that “it’s more about the top of the head, the lowering of the head and using it as a weapon,” and not necessarily about the instinctive dipping of the helmet that happens whenever a runner tries to maneuver between the tackles.

“A running back one-on-one with a linebacker in the hole trying to get the extra yard,” O’Brien said. “Lowering his shoulder which obviously lowers his head to be able to get that extra yard. There’s a lot of conversations that have to take place before the rule is written because like you just said none of us want the running game to be out of football. Those are all good points and points that are being brought up. I know we’re working hard to get it written the right way so we can explain it to the players and the officials can officiate it the right way.”

O’Brien’s comments are encouraging, if the goal is to see minimal impact -- and maximum predictability. The only question is whether his views are consistent with the league’s intentions. As written and presented, this seems to be about more than using the top of the head as a weapon, because the league banned that technique outside the tackle box in 2013. There’s a vague area between the facemask and the top of the helmet that the new rule seems to be encompassing. For now, it’s impossible to know where the line will be drawn, and how the NFL will enforce this provision in a fair and consistent way.

It’s also possible that coaches like O’Brien may have a lot more to say about the situation if/when the league provides information suggesting that the rule will be truly as sweeping and significant as many fear it will be.