Dallas Cowboys

With new helmet rule, some of your favorite NFL memories would now be penalties

Former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith flies over the goal line for a one-yard  touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense during a game in October 1997.
Former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith flies over the goal line for a one-yard touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense during a game in October 1997. AP Photo

Some of your favorite NFL memories would now be a 15-yard penalty and could get a player ejected.

The league’s new rule that prohibits players on both offense and defense from lowering their head to initiate contact with their helmet would have marred some of the most famous plays in NFL history.

The Oilers’ Earl Campbell plowing through the Rams’ Isiah Robertson before other tacklers tore Campbell’s jersey off? No dice. In fact, Campbell would have been ejected in 2018 for lowering his helmet into the chest of Robertson. Bo Jackson taking on Brian Bozworth? Not anymore.

NFL game officials are at the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp facility for the next three days to help the players and coaches understand several new and updated rules. The officials also addressed the changes with the media Saturday morning.

The biggest take away from the most drastic rules change this year is the apparent vagueness of the helmet rule. It’s not vague because the stipulations aren’t clear. They are. What remains a big question entering the preseason (the Cowboys open their preseason schedule Thursday against the 49ers), however, is how, exactly, the helmet rule will be enforced.


“The way the rule has been identified to us is if they lower the head and initiate contact to the defensive player we’re potentially going to have a foul on that play,” 10-year NFL referee veteran Todd Prukop said. “If he’s bracing for impact then that is not a foul. If a player is running and he lowers his helmet prior to that impact, then he’s initiating [contact].”

But this leaves a big gray area (or not) for goal line plays, which often include running backs or quarterbacks diving helmet-first into the line of scrimmage. Will they be flagged? Good question. Best answer: We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out in real time. One thing seems for certain, players such as Campbell and Jack Tatum would find today’s NFL much tamer.

“We’re going to learn how to call this foul in these positions,” Prukop said. “It’s going to be quick and we’re going to do the best we can. It applies to both the offense and defense, the lineman. Everybody on the football field are under these constraints. It’s going to be a process we go through during the preseason.”

Player safety is the reason for the change and both the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to the alteration.

“To a man, they were unanimous on this because it’s safety. They want this game to become safer for them as well,” he said.

A player can be ejected from a game if, for example, he’s in a linear position and initiates contact with the crown of his helmet and he clearly had the opportunity to avoid it. If a secondary tackler on a play initiates contact with his helmet when an offensive player is already being tackled by a primary tackler, he can be ejected.

“Those are the situations where you want to come in with your shoulder,” Prukop said. “The contact doesn’t have to occur to the head and neck, it’s anywhere on the body.”

The goal line plays could be the biggest headache for officials. Bart Starr’s famous sneak into the end zone against the Cowboys in the 1967 Ice Bowl included two players who would have conceivably been ejected: Starr and right guard Jerry Kramer. Both put their heads down and initiated contact with the crown of their helmets.

“It will be an ongoing process throughout the season. We’ve never officiated this rule. We’re growing together,” Prukop said. “It’s going to be a real change. Hopefully, the volume of information that comes out will help us learn from it. It’s a huge change for all of us. We have to grow together on this one.”

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