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The league’s new “targeting rule” is a step in the right direction

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The NFL is making some overdue changes in an effort to enhance player safety. Thank goodness.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In 1980, not long after the NFL implemented a rule dictating that, in the words of the late Dave Brady of The Washington Post, “officials are to blow the play dead as soon as the quarterback is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler behind the line,” then-Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert expounded a bit of tough-guy reasoning that resonates with football purists to this day:

They’ll be putting skirts on [the quarterbacks] next.

This argument—as well as its numerous, similarly antiquated derivatives—are invoked virtually any time the NFL goes about “tampering with” the violence that is inextricably woven into the very fibers of contact football. They’re watering down the product. They are making the NFL less watchable. They are drastically changing the sport of football.

The NFL changed another rule recently, expanding it’s “helmet-hit rule”—ostensibly a yet-to-be-defined targeting rule—to award 15-yard penalties and, critically, ejections to offenders “who lead with the crown of their helmets to initiate contact against an opponent on any play.” Given the NFL’s complete inability to sufficiently devise—let alone consistently enforce—something as basic as an ironclad catch rule (in their defense, though, it does appear that the NFL has overhauled its arcane and byzantine parameters governing what constitutes a catch, thank God), fans should be understandably concerned about the immediate ramifications of what appears to be a broadly defined and exceedingly subjective de facto targeting policy. The best-case scenario for the NFL would be the enactment of a “helmet-hit” policy that mirrors the NCAA’s “targeting rule,” which allows for the officials to leverage their discretion in real time, but also permits them to defer to instant replay in the event that the play in question may require an ejection. Obviously, this vigilant policing has resulted in a non-zero number of controversial outcomes, but the crux of this theory, if competition committees are to be believed, is to enhance player safety.

According to the NFL’s own research, players suffered more than 280 concussions—officially diagnosed ones, anyway—last season, which represented a 16 percent increase over 2016 rates. While league-wide concussions rates do tend to fluctuate (players suffered just over 200 concussions in 2014, 275 in 2015, and just over 240 in 2016), the 280 figure is the highest concentration of concussions the league has seen over at least the past six years. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to realize that reducing the rate of concussions should be a paramount strategy if the league hopes to safeguard the long-term vitality of former players (though neuroscientists have also determined this, because duh). It also doesn’t take a neuroscientist to realize that ridding football of head trauma is a thoroughly fruitless endeavor. Regardless, taking small steps that might help maker the game marginally safer should absolutely be eagerly embraced.

The NFL has determined, through whatever channels, that the biomechanical action of tackling crown-first increases the likelihood of a concussion. “[T]he more we saw of the concussion plays and the more there was a common technique [lowering the head], it became more apparent that we needed to get out of situationally saying, ‘Well, if a player is targeted or if a defenseless player is in the air we need to get to the technique that can protect the person doing the hitting also,’” said NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay. McKay probably isn’t wrong. In a collaborative effort between the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, and various other prestigious medical colleges, Dr. Ira Casson et al. found that from 1996-2007, players attempting to make tackles suffered more concussions than players being tackled, players blocking, or players being blocked. Even if the travails of progress have lessened the general ubiquity of these kinds of concussions, it stands to reason that the instigators are still the most pronounced risk contingent. And the league certainly should be taking steps to protect this group, even if it alters the watchability of the product, and even if the odds of said steps actually making the players safer are relatively slim.

A stricter helmet-hit rule could very well spearhead change NFL, and I say let it. Could this rule abate the already-snail-like pace of play? It just might. Will officials misinterpret and misapply a refined targeting rule? They probably will. However, when 110 out of 111 brains of former (now deceased) NFL players exhibit traits of degenerative brain ailments, the league should step in an figure out just how the heck to combat this.