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Football landscape shifts with new rule changes

by Dave Wiggins

If Hank Williams, Jr. was still performing in the open for Monday Night Football, he might be asking you this: Are you ready for some kinder, gentler football?

Like it or not, playing nicer is a continuing trend in the American gridiron sport — in both its NCAA and NFL forms.

As the college and pro honchos endeavor to make their sport even safer, some rather drastic rule changes have been added once again this year.

Many of the debuting NFL and NCAA no-no’s build on previous rules — like those against spearing with the helmet and hitting a defenseless opponent — and a lot of them are aimed at preventing concussions.

Now also outlawed are: leading with the helmet to any part of the body while tackling, targeting (hitting an opponent in the neck or head area) and leading with the helmet by a ball carrier when contact with a tackler is imminent.

The NFL has also widened the interpretation of what constitutes a defenseless opponent.

The NCAA, meanwhile, has taken its targeting punishment further than just a 15-yard penalty. They can’t fine offenders like the NFL can, so their targeting rule also calls for the ejection of the guilty player.

As one might expect, the rule changes have resulted in a lot of confusion as to how to both play the game AND officiate it.

For example, a rookie Chicago Bears linebacker put a heretofore perfectly legal blind side tackle on a running back — knocking him rear end-over-tea kettle — but was flagged for hitting a defenseless player.

Because officials have been granted wider authority to deem what constitutes a defenseless player, they saw the ball carrier as being in a vulnerable position.

But what one official sees as a clean hit might be viewed as illegal by another, resulting in grey areas in interpretation.

The NCAA’s targeting rule, especially, has everyone flummoxed.

If the referee feels a hit to head or neck area was intentional, he can eject the player. But who’s to say, sometimes, whether or not malice is a forethought?

Fortunately, the coach of an ejected player can challenge the eviction.

The pressbox replay ref is then tasked with determining whether the above-the-shoulders hit WAS intentional or just the result of sudden body movement by the ball carrier or intended receiver — like ducking or diving.

Numerous ejections have already been overturned.

NFL ball carriers, meanwhile, don’t much care for that rule that forbids them to lower their heads and use them like a battering ram upon meeting a tackler.

Chicago running back Matt Forte claims it takes away from a ball carrier’s ability to avoid getting the worst of a collision and vowed to continue using his helmet to protect himself.

Fortunately for Forte, thus far, MAS has failed to see any running back penalized for breaking this rule.

Meanwhile, though, targeting calls have been a dime a dozen.

Many coaches and players are also concerned that the new rule against leading with the head when tackling will create as many injuries as it prevents.

They say the changes will eventually lead to players thinking so much about their hits being legal that they themselves may be put in a dangerous position.

Many tacklers now turn their heads to avoid using their helmet. This heightens the chance for neck and spinal injuries.

You can look for a lot of defenders, especially, to be walking on eggshells instead of playing the game with traditional fierceness and abandon — both out of fear of punishment AND injury.

As a result of all this, to MAS’s eyes the grid product is not the same.

The hitting is much more controlled. Thus, the game is lacking, to a degree, that certain physicality it once had in spades.

Hence, maybe the need for the return of Hank Williams, Jr. and his new MNF intro.

On the one hand, MAS can certainly understand the reasoning behind the rule changes,

In recent years, the players have become so much bigger, stronger and faster that collisions present more danger of injury.

It’s possible even more stringent rules will be adopted in the future.

But when we will reach the point where American football ceases to become a “contact” sport, thus killing interest in it?

Big hits are almost as popular a part of the game as touchdowns.

Many are predicting that the contact will become so diluted that football will eventually lose its appeal.

Whether the big-biz NFL has its players’ welfare or its wallet more at heart is debatable.

Some feel the league merely established the new rules in an attempt to avoid future lawsuits, like the one it recently settled by agreeing to pay $765 million to over 4,500 ex-players regarding concussions they suffered.

Among other suit accusations, the former pro performers said the NFL didn’t provide them with adequate information about concussions.

While I feel the NFL is acting more to cover its butt with the rules changes, I don’t see how the league can be blamed for not informing the players about the danger and seriousness of concussions.

The players have known the risks since they first started playing Pee Wee Football.

This might just be another example of Americans nowadays using the U.S. legal system for personal financial gain instead of earning money the old-fashioned way — through hard work.

While I’m not sure about league or player motivation, one point is certain: We may have reached the point of no return and — for good or bad — seen the last of old-fashioned, slobber-knocking football.

Stay by the phone, Hank.

Contact Man About Sports at: davwigg@gmail.com