The 2018 NFL Preseason officially kicked off on Thursday August 2nd when the Bears and Ravens squared off in Canton, Ohio, and audiences across the country got their first look at the major rule changes implemented for the 2018 season. The fans in Buffalo got their up-close and personal look at the new rules, and some new weapons, when the Bills took on the Panthers on August 9th.
Bills fans should be cautiously optimistic by what they observed on Thursday night, regardless of the fact that the Panthers won the game by a score of 28-23. The starters on both sides of the ball had strong showings, the quarterbacks were sharp and confident, and the offense seemed more exciting than in seasons past, even in a game that is played under a “vanilla” game plan. The game was sloppy, however, with respect to penalties. The two teams combined for eighteen total penalties, two of which included a new penalty for 2018.
The major rule changes alluded to earlier include a 15 yard penalty to any offensive or defensive player leading with the crown of their helmet to initiate impact, clarification on the catch rule, and changes to the way kickoffs occur. Buffalo’s Julian Stanford and Carolina’s Jermaine Carter Jr. were both guilty of the personal foul of leading with the crown of the helmet to initiate impact, and this game also included a catch being reviewed under the catch rule’s new language.
The penalty for leading with the crown of the helmet received the most criticism during the opening week of games. The NFL stated “it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” The NFL goes on to explain that the contact is not restricted to the opponent’s upper body, and that the penalty can be applied “anywhere on the field at any time.” In addition to the 15 yard penalty, the offending player may be ejected from the game if the player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet, has an unobstructed path to his opponent, and the contact is clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options.
The catch rule was simplified from years past, in an attempt by the NFL to answer the question of “what is a catch”. The standard officials will use to determine what a catch is, going forward, will be concentrating on whether the receiver has control of the ball, has two feet down or another body part down, and has performed a football move such as a third step, reaching or extending for the line-to-gain, or the ability to perform such a football move.
With the number of injuries sustained on kickoffs in the NFL, several changes were implemented to improve player safety on these plays. First, players on the kickoff coverage team will no longer get a running start, as their starting position has been moved from the 30 yard line to the 34 yard line, with the kicker continuing to kickoff from the 35 yard line. There is also no reason to take a knee in the endzone anymore, as any ball that touches the ground in the endzone is automatically a touchback. The receiving team must also have eight of their eleven players within a “setup zone” closer to the kicking team, which will eliminate “wedge blocking” and force them to run down the field with the kickoff coverage team. Players in this zone are also barred from engaging until the coverage team has passed midfield. Finally, there must be five players lined up on either side of the kicker, eliminating teams from overloading one side of the formation in an attempt to field an onside kick.
Ultimately, it is very difficult to learn much from one week of football, especially considering it is preseason football. Additionally, it is just as much the preseason for the NFL referees as it is for the players, especially in regards to the lowering of the helmet penalty. While heavily criticized during the opening week of the preseason, the players expressed a belief that the helmet rule will be over-policed in the preseason, so the referees can review the calls and determine what is and is not a violation of the new rule based on those calls. Ravens Safety Eric Weddle echoed this sentiment, tweeting that the penalty called on fellow Baltimore Safety Bennett Jackson was “a clinic teach tape play” and that there was “no chance” a flag is thrown in the regular season. [ii] This type of officiating was seen first-hand by Bills fans in the 2016 preseason, when Lorenzo Alexander was flagged twice for Roughing the Passer on two seemingly clean sacks on then-Washington Quarterback Kirk Cousins.
While some in the NFL want to “Make Football Violent Again”, most realize that these rules were implemented to improve player safety to ensure the longevity of the game beloved by so many. Additionally, the language in the catch rule was clarified to ensure the credibility and the legitimacy of the product the NFL puts on the field every week. But this is what the preseason is for, as the NFL has to ensure they are getting penalty calls, and no-calls, right. A slower, over-policed game with more flags in the preseason is a necessary inconvenience to ensure it is officiated correctly in the regular season and postseason. It would also be no surprise if the 2019 NFL Preseason included a system of reviewing the helmet penalty, much like the NCAA does when a player is penalized for Targeting. As the NFL goes into Week 2 of the preseason, it will be interesting to compare the application and interpretation of all these new rules, by players and referees alike heading toward the start of the 2018 Regular Season.
Photo Courtesy: Brett Carlsen, Getty Images.