The NFL’s new world order came into focus Thursday night in the town that celebrates the league’s past.
The Hall of Fame Game, held in Canton, Ohio, was the first test case for the league’s new helmet rule.
And the reviews were terrible.
The league wants to make the game safer, so no longer can any player, regardless of position, lower his head to initiate contact.
And if Bennett Jackson’s seemingly perfect tackle — later called by Ravens teammate Eric Weddle as “a clinic teach tape play” — is indeed what’s now illegal, the game might be unrecognizable.
“Oh yeah, that’s not flag,” Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald said when a reporter showed him the play that officials deemed worthy of a 15-yard penalty. “I think right now, in the preseason, they’re going to err on the being cautious to show that they’re really emphasizing the rule, but that’s not a flag.”
He might be right.
Flags are always up in the preseason, because refs are trying to condition players to what will and will not be allowed. Plus the officials themselves are trying to get a feel for the new rules.
“We’re in the instance where we might throw a little bit more and try to gauge,” said NFL official Scott Novak, who was part of a team of refs visiting Dolphins camp Friday to help provide guidance to the team. “One it’s to see how the office wants us to call on the field during the games, and two, it’s not necessarily sending a message, but saying there’s an emphasis on it. We need to make sure we get rid of this illegal contact or lowering the helmet. The preseason, I think, historically numbers are always up. Hopefully when we get to the regular season it’s back down because the players kind of have a sense of what we want to do.”
But Novak insists his bosses are serious about getting the most dangerous, egregious hits out of the game.
No longer must a player need to make helmet-to-helmet contact to draw a flag, fine and possible ejection. Now, if a player leads with his helmet to any part of the opponent’s body, it’s a penalty.
The rule will have the biggest impact the safety position, because those are the defenders who usually land the biggest hits on receivers.
“I’m not changing my game,” said Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. “I’ve got maybe one flag since I’ve been in the NFL and I’ve delivered my share of hits. I just try to keep my head up, play as big as possible, but things happen. ... I only know how to play the game one way.”
Added Jones: “I think there are going to be too many flags. Flags every other play. We’ve got to see how it goes.”