ORLANDO -- The most significant takeaway from the NFL Annual Meeting is one that changes the game of football – how it's played, how it's officiated, and how it's watched. Get on board with the new rule now in place after a vote from the league's owners that penalizes and potentially ejects players who lower their helmets and use it to initiate contract with another player, because it's perhaps the most sport-altering rule in decades.
This is huge, gang, and you'd better wrap your arms and minds around it to fully grasp the impact. Defenders who lower their helmets to make a tackle, defensive linemen who lower their helmets when they bull rush an offensive lineman and ball carriers who lower their helmets to push for extra yardage or, in some cases, protect their sternum areas from potential injury, are all subject to penalties.
"I thought it was crucial that it came up," Eagles Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie said on Tuesday, after the new rule was announced. "We've done so much research and investigation on what creates the real concussive plays in the NFL and it became obvious that so many of the plays are through the lowering of the helmet and using the helmet as a weapon. This, I thought, was very important that we try to eliminate the helmet as a weapon. It's also bad for the person who is perpetrating it because a lot of injuries happen by the player who is actually lowering the helmet and hitting.
"So, it's not just helmet to helmet. This is meant to eliminate the use of the helmet as a weapon anywhere. The No. 1 priority for the NFL is to make the game as healthy and safe as possible."
Will it be difficult for officials to legislate the new rule?
"I don't think so," Lurie said. "I think it's going to take a combination of ejections, fines, penalties on the field, suspensions potentially, and I think you can, over a short period of time make sure that you have very few. I was very much wanting to see this get accomplished.
"I think it's a big deal."
No question that it is big deal. Players are reminded on a daily basis to "see what you hit," but we know that often isn't the case as defenders launch themselves at ball carriers, as poor and careless tackling technique is used, as a running back lowers his head and plows into the line of scrimmage one yard away from the end zone.
In the matter of one spring and summer period, players are going to have to get up to speed.
"Our focus is taking the head out of the game, to make sure we're using the helmet as protection and not a weapon," said Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday as he wrapped up the Meetings with a press conference.
Goodell also said that that league representatives will meet with coaches, medical staffs, and players from all 32 franchises over the offseason to address and educate the clubs about the rule change. There is also the possibility that the use of replay will be implemented to confirm ejections.
"If we're able to have replay to confirm when there's one of these fouls when it happens in the game, then we should be able to use replay to confirm when an ejection may be necessary," Goodell said. "I believe that our coaches and clubs feel (using replay for ejections) is the appropriate thing to do."
With a game-day roster of only 46 players, teams can ill afford to lose players to ejections. And players certainly don't want to incur fines and potential suspensions because they unwittingly lowered their helmets on a particular play.
But the NFL is placing a premium on player safety, and with the teams on board, the time was right to add the dramatic new rule.
NFL.com reported on the rise in player concussions in 2017 in January: "Data compiled by IQVIA, an independent third party retained by the league, showed a 13.5 percent increase in diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017 (243 to 281) over the preseason and regular season in. The increase comes after 28 percent of concussion evaluations followed self-reported by players -- a nine-point increase over last year. Nearly half (47 percent) of all concussions included some self-reporting component when being flagged by team doctors and independent neurological specialists.
"We're disappointed that the concussion numbers are up," said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, on a conference call with reporters. "It is something which challenges us now to roll up our sleeves and work hard to see that number go down. ... We're not going to be satisfied until we drive that number much lower."
This new rule requires a lot of education for the players and coaches. There are many teams in the league that limit full contact in Training Camp, so many players go into preseason games having not tackled much at all since the previous season. Fringe roster players must temper their recklessness. Correct tackling technique is going to be essential. The way pass rushers attack offensive linemen changes.
And as much as the players and the coaches – and the officials – need to understand the new landscape, so must the fans. In many ways, a different game is going to be played in 2018 and beyond. Player safety is of utmost importance. With that, we're going to see a new NFL.