NFC North: 2013 NFL rules changes

PHOENIX -- Before the discussion even began, Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte used the word "absurd" to describe the NFL's plans to penalize running backs for hitting opponents with the crown of their helmets when running outside the tackle box. So I figured I would pass along Forte's sarcastic response to news that the rule passed, by near unanimous vote, Wednesday at the NFL owners meeting.

Via Forte's Twitter account: "Wow so they really passed that rule...last time I checked football was a contact sport. Calling bank now to set up my lowering the boom. Guess I'll get my fine money ready #loweringtheboomfund" Next year they'll probably be a no jumping over defenders rule... #loweringtheboomfund"

Forte has brought forth some genuine and legitimate concerns, and other NFC North players are voicing their concerns as well. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison tweeted:
"Some of these rules are just ridiculous. Next rule proposal should be to change from NFL to NFFL #nationalflagfootballleague"

From Vikings safety Harrison Smith:
"Soon everyone will get a trophy for participation"

The NFL clearly hasn't been moved by player concerns, however. According to St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, the NFL re-watched all games from Week 16 last season and found five plays that would have been a penalty under the new rule. Player concern could decrease when the limited scope of the rule is revealed. But fair or not, right or wrong, players can expect a continued movement in this direction.
PHOENIX -- Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte called it "absurd." Leslie Frazier worried that his MVP running back would be subjected to an increasing number of hits to his knee. The NFC North generated as much opposition to the NFL's proposed crown-to-helmet penalty as any other division, but in the end -- as we discussed Sunday -- the nebulous "player safety" tag has once again carried the day.

All four NFC North teams voted for a rule that passed overwhelmingly Wednesday. Frazier and the Vikings produced a notable about-face; Frazier had reiterated concerns as recently as an hour before the vote, during the NFC coaches breakfast here at the NFL owners meeting. After the vote, however, Frazier said: "The overriding factor regarding player safety kind of overrode [our] concerns."

Look, we all know what happened here. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety a priority, both for the long-term health of players and the long-term viability of the game. Creating "safer" rules puts those efforts in writing and creates a paper trail, in both a practical and legal sense. I'm pretty sure the NFL doesn't want coaches or other employees publicly questioning its efforts to do so, regardless of the issues at play. The league is making a macro movement in spite of whatever micro issues it might cause.

The rule makes sense in the abstract -- a player shouldn't be allowed to, as the rule is worded, "deliver a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent" -- but there are practical ramifications that make you wonder how it will be enforced.

Forte noted that running backs naturally lower their shoulders to protect themselves from contact and to break tackles. As a result, the head lowers as well. Will officials recognize the difference between that and an intentional lowering of the head to initiate contact? Frazier wondered if defensive players would go low on tailback Adrian Peterson to avoid the 15-yard penalty of hitting his helmet with theirs.

In the end, those issues won't dissipate. We'll probably have some questionable calls to discuss this season. But go ahead and book it: Anytime a rule change is attached to "player safety," its chances of passing is excellent. It's a sign of our times.

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