By BARRY WILNER
PHOENIX — If it was good enough for football’s greatest running back, NFL owners figure, it should work in the 21st century.
Team owners passed a player safety rule Wednesday barring ball carriers from using the crown of their helmets to make forcible contact with a defender in the open field. Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney put the change succinctly.
“Jim Brown never lowered his head,” he said with a smile. “It can be done.”
And according to the rules, it must be done beginning this season.
The second significant player safety rule passed this week to help protect defensive players came with much debate. Several coaches and team executives expressed concern about officiating the new rule, but Commissioner Roger Goodell championed it and it passed 31-1. Cincinnati voted no.
On Tuesday, the league took the peel-back block out of the game.
The changes were the latest involving safety, and head injuries in particular, with the issue receiving heightened attention amid hundreds of lawsuits filed by former players claiming that the NFL did not do enough to prevent concussions in years past. League officials have defended the NFL’s record and did so again on Wednesday.
“I have always thought that player safety has been at the forefront of our discussion for a long, long time,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee that recommends rule changes. “The game has gotten safer over time. Where we have really focused is on the big hits, the open field hits and hits where players truly can’t defend themselves. In this step that we are taking we are trying to protect the player from himself with respect to this rule.”
The tuck rule, one of the most criticized in pro football, was eliminated. Now, if a quarterback loses control of the ball before he has fully protected it after opting not to throw, it is a fumble.
The Steelers were the only team to vote against getting rid of the tuck rule. New England and Washington abstained.
Peel-back blocks had been legal inside the tackle box, but now players can’t turn back toward their goal line and block an opponent low from behind anywhere on the field.
Video review now will be allowed when a coach challenges a play that he is not allowed to. But the coach will be penalized or lose a timeout, depending on when he threw the challenge flag.
That change stems from Houston’s Thanksgiving victory over Detroit in which Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged a touchdown run by the Texans’ Justin Forsett. Although officials clearly missed Forsett being down by contact before breaking free on the 81-yard run, when Schwartz threw the red flag on a scoring play that automatically is reviewed, the referee could not go to replay.
That loophole has been eliminated.
Goodell was eager to get approved the competition committee’s proposal to outlaw use of the crown of the helmet by ball carriers, and there was talk the vote would be tabled until May if the rule change didn’t have enough support.
But after watching videos of the play that clearly showed the differences in legal and illegal moves by ball carriers, the owners voted yes — and then applauded the decision, something Rams coach Jeff Fisher said is “rare.”
“We had discussions with the players association and the players themselves, the coaches’ subcommittee,” said Fisher, co-chairman of the competition committee. “A lot of people talked to us about this rule and how to roll it out in our game.”
The penalty will be 15 yards from the spot of the foul, and if the offensive and defensive players both lower their heads and use the crown of the helmet to make contact, each will be penalized.
“It’ll certainly make our runners aware of what we expect relative to use of the helmet,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “One of the questions I ask a lot is who gains from this, offense or defense? And it’s a toss-up as to which side of the ball has the advantage on this rule, if any. The main thing is it’s pro-health and safety, and that’s the big thing.”