The NFL has approved changes for several rules, including the abolition of the infamous tuck rule, a new penalty for an offensive player (running back or wide receiver) leading with the crown of the helmet, a new penalty against peel-back cut blocks, certain overload formations on special teams have been outlawed, and the 'illegal challenge flag' rule has been eliminated.
The peel-back block rule has been of interest for Seahawks fans because the zone-blocking scheme relies heavily on cut blocks. From what I gather, this new rule will not affect the ZBS at all. As Rams coach Jeff Fisher explained at a press conference at the NFL Coaches meetings:
"The peel-back block is an act usually by an offensive player that's going to go downfield and move down the line of scrimmage and then turn back towards his own endline and then block low. Prior to this proposal, it was permissible inside the tackle box, so the guard could start the play, turn back on the screen pass, turn back around [and] as long as he hadn't left the tackle box it was permissible for him to block low on a defenseless player."
"Last year, the hit we're all familiar with - the [Brian] Cushing hit - actually was illegal because they left the tackle box and then the block was initiated. So what we're proposing now is that really under no circumstances will you be permitted to block low below the waist when you're blocking back towards your own endline. Including the tackle box also where it'll be illegal."
"It's not going to affect any of the run game [was asked particularly about the zone-blocking scheme]. This is more so in screens, more so in bootlegs and things like that. We're still allowing adjacent linemen to go down in the run game and we still have the one man removed block on the backside of runs, which ends up being a chop. But we're not changing any of the block. Keep in mind this is back towards your own endline, so if Team A is going this way, it's a foul when they turn around and block back this way."
Was there any pushback on this rule?
Fisher: "There was really no issue. We didn't have any disagreement whatsoever with the coaches or issues that were raised regarding the current status of the run game. Like I said, this does not affect the run game per se, at all. This is just typically in pass plays where most times you have a defenseless player that doesn't see the block. A lot of the discussion we had even with the players in Indy, the players were OK when the adjacent lineman if the play starts this way, when this adjacent lineman went low as long as he got his head across. They're used to that, they anticipate that, so there was not a lot of concern there."
The other rule that has caused a bit of a media/fan firestorm is the nearly unanimous passing (31-1 in favor) of the rule that outlaws a running back or receiver from leading with the crown of their helmet. My first reaction to this rule approval is that it will trend in the direction of the helmet-to-helmet hit rules for defenders: Any big hit now between a offensive player and defensive player is going to be flagged. In reality, that's probably not true, but the thing that does concern me a bit is that it's just another non-reviewable judgement call for officials to make in real time. There are going to be awful, egregious mis-calls involved.
Here's how Fisher explains the rule:
"Playing Rule Proposal No. 6 restricts a ball carrier and a tackler's ability to initiate contact with the crown of their helmet. This one has gotten a lot of attention and discussion and so far it's going well. We have a couple of plays that we'd like to share with you, one that is and one that isn't. We've talked at length about how we think it should be enforced but the important thing here is this is a block that is out in space. It's clearly - and we emphasize clearly - outside of the tackle box, which is tackle to tackle, and further than three yards down the field. So clearly, and they're going to enforce it as if it is, it's that play where two players are coming together like this and dropping their helmets where they make contact with the top crown of the helmet. Face good, hairline good, this good but when the crown comes down, we're going to have issues. We've looked at a lot of plays. Basically, the best way to phrase this is we're bringing the shoulder back in the game. We want to bring the shoulder back to the game. We all know the helmet is a protective device; it's not designed to be used like it's being used as of late and we want to protect our players, specifically out in space."
NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino notes: "We went through all of Week 16 last year, looking for these types of plays. We pulled about 34 plays where we had helmet-to-helmet contact out in space and of those 34, we identified five in which this rule would have captured. Five in 16 games, one in every - a little bit more - than three games. Obviously that is one week, but that is what we came up with. From the 16 games in Week 16, there were five instances we felt, based on the video, would have been illegal.
Blandino contined, "We are not trying to legislate all [helmet-to-helmet hits] - there is going to be helmet-to-helmet contact between a runner and a tackler, that is not what this rule is designed to take out. It is where one player lowers the head and delivers a blow with the crown, the top of the helmet, lines up a player and hits him when we feel he has options to do something else."
As for the actual enforcement of the rule?
Per NFL Senior Director of Officiating, Alberto Riveron: "The enforcement will be a 15-yard penalty and if it happens on the runner, it will be a spot foul. If we get into a situation where - I think we saw one - the offensive player and the defensive player are both committing a foul, it will be an off-setting penalty and they will replay the down. The way we are officiating it - we just talked about it - in space."
"We talked about the tackle box where it is three yards downfield or outside the tackles. We will have two officials downfield - a field judge and a side judge - 22 yards [and] 25 yards down field. We will really get a wide look at this and from that perspective you can see the runner put his head down and/or you can see a defensive player come across the field and line up an opponent. So you really get a clear shot from a far away distance where our official is stationed. And there could be a situation where we could have a foul and another official could come and say ‘He did not put his head down, he did not use the crown of his helmet.' It might have been incidental contact but we can talk the other official out of a foul much like we do right now."
"The tackle box is defined as tackle-to-tackle, three yards on the defensive side of the ball or - when you get on the offensive side of the ball - it is line of scrimmage all the way back to the end line."
Per Jeff Fisher: "We want to make a serious attempt to get the shoulder back into the game. We think that is very important as a league. We are not saying the ball carrier cannot get small. We are not saying the ball carrier cannot protect the football, because if he is going to go down to cover the football, if the shoulder goes down, we know the head goes down, we understand that. We have some one arm dominant runners in this league where if they are running away from their dominant side, they don't switch hands with the ball, so if I am running as a right handed ball carrier and I am running to the left, the defender coming here, my only opportunity is to go down to protect the football. Protecting the football is OK, providing you do not strike with the crown of your helmet and that is what we are trying to differentiate. The other thing that is going to come up, the crew is going to do the best they can, but there may be instances where this is sent upstairs and it is not penalized on the field but it will be fined."
Blandino: "Just like any other player safety foul, if we don't call it on the field, it is still subject to supplemental discipline with a fine. These are the plays we are looking at. We are looking for the obvious. This is the [runner] or defender; here it is the running back lowering his head, using the crown of the helmet to deliver the blow. That is the type of play. This is the tape we are going to show the game officials and the players. That is the obvious type of act we are trying to get out. On the flip slide, when you talk about the defender, and we talk to coaches, coaches say we don't want players tackling, using this technique, we are trying to protect two players; the player that gets hit, but here, the player doing the hitting, he is putting himself in a position to get a serious neck injury and that is what we are trying to take out of the game. Using that technique, lowering the head, using the crown of the helmet to deliver that blow."
One egregious play that was actually used as an example at the Owners Meetings and this press conference:
The next question on Seahawks' fans minds is whether or not it affects the way that Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, and Michael Robinson play the game. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few instances (actually, I can't think of any, to be honest) where any of these players have legitimately led with the crown of their helmet and used their head as a weapon. That said, I can think of many instances where big collisions have happened between Lynch, Turbin, and Robinson, where it's certainly conceivable that a ref, in real-time, will perceive the crown-rule being broken. All I can say now is that it will be interesting to see how they call it.