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It’s Clear Why Sean Payton Supported New Helmet Hitting Rule

Payton is already making waves in his first year on the competition committee by emerging as one of the most vocal supporters for penalizing helmet to helmet hits; and his opinion appears to be shaped by his personal experience with losing key players to such hits.

NFL: New Orleans Saints-Minicamp Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL pulled a fast one at its’ annual meeting by unanimously passing an idea of a rule that has yet to be finalized, and could potentially change the way players tackle from this day forward. First year competition committee member, Sean Payton, was perhaps one of the most vocal head coaches in his outright support for the new rule that punishes helmet to helmet hits against any player on the field.

“Everyone really felt like this was a necessary step,” Payton said. “Something that, after really hearing the experts talk, that we can clearly identify and point to the officials as to how to see this, and then our ability to confirm it in New York if there is an ejection.”

I’m not surprised Payton was vocally supportive of the rule change, mostly because he’s lost several games over the years partially due to losing impact players following egregious hits to the helmet.

Last year, against the Rams, Payton watched his tight end Coby Fleener take an absolutely brutal helmet to helmet hit delivered by Blake Countess. I bet Payton used this footage as an example of the type of tackling technique he wants removed from the game.

As the rule stands, the offending team will be assessed a 15 yard penalty and the player who lowers his head to “initiate and make contact” with the helmet could possibly be ejected. A friend of mine at the gym, who also happens to be a super smart lawyer, has often made the interesting case for an even stiffer penalty against reckless and dangerous helmet hitters.

He believes, for instance, in the case of Blake Countess’ hit on Coby Fleener, Countess should not only be ejected from the game, but suspended for as long as Fleener remains injured from the hit. It’s clear fining the players doesn’t impact their style of play. But removing a player from the same game as the player they injured would certainly prove a greater deterrent.

I spoke with Fleener at Steve Gleason’s birthday party, and when another party goer asked him if he was healthy, he replied simply, “No.” The Saints aren’t addressing his status openly, but their recent signing of Ben Watson could be an indication that Fleener is indeed still suffering concussion symptoms that could very well keep him out this year, or worse, end his career. He has acknowledged this latest concussion as the fifth of his career.

Fleener’s case is probably the worst as he ended the year on injured reserve after week 13; but the Falcon’s Deion Jones’ helmet to helmet hit on Alvin Kamara served as the most obvious example of how quickly a game can change following the exit of a dynamic playmaker due to a concussion.

The only other time, in fact, that I remember the Saints’ mojo getting literally knocked out in the same spirit-crushing way was when Donte Whitner delivered a similar side helmet blow to Pierre Thomas causing him to lose consciousness as well as his grip on the ball.

Payton has lost big time games because his players were literally knocked out the game. It’s no wonder he was so passionate about this rule change at the competition committee meeting where every coach voted in support of the rule. Many players, on the other hand, including Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, and DJ Swearinger have all voiced their displeasure with the rule change.

“It’s ridiculous,” Sherman told USA Today. “Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you’re getting a ticket. [It’s] gonna lead to more lower extremity injuries.” Others are simply confused as to how to proceed.

“I don’t know how you’re going to play the game,” Norman said. “If your helmet comes in contact? How are you going to avoid that if you’re in the trenches and hit a running back, face mask to face mask and accidentally graze the helmet? It’s obviously going to happen. So, I don’t know even what that definition looks like.”

The chairman of the competition committee, Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay knows it will be up to the committee and all 32 coaches as well as every position coach to learn the rule and teach the players the technique needed to avoid dangerous helmet to helmet hits. “We’ve got to put the materials together. We’ve got to show the tape. We’ve got to make sure all of you see it, they see it, and it’s taught the same way at all 32 [teams].”

“If that happens, I think the players — they’re the best athletes in the world and they’ll conform. Hopefully this becomes a springboard, too: take it all the way down, at all levels [of football] because the head [blows] and the lowering of the head has become too commonplace. And it needs to get out of the game.”

Along with other league decision makers, Payton remains confident the number of penalties or ejections won’t be too frequent and that the overall quality of the game won’t be negatively affected by the rule change.

“I think we’ll see it have a great effect on one element of this helmet [issue] in how we want the game to be played,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, via Mark Maske of the Washington Post. “I think you’ll still see the physicality. This is the one posture [that’s affected] — we’ll remove it.”

Former Washington quarterback and Super Bowl winner, Doug Williams understands why players are having a hard time accepting this new rule, but he also hopes they understand, if anything, it’s designed for their benefit.

“When you look at some of the older guys that played this game and the condition that they’re in now — what it is, it’s to protect some of these guys [current players] from when they get older going through the same thing,” now Washington front office executive Williams said.

“It’s like anything else. When something goes wrong, you have to suffer the consequences. It’s gonna happen,” he said. “Sometimes it happens accidentally. But at the same time, you’ve got to let them know that this is not gonna be part of the game. … There’s not a lot of guys that do that. But it happens.”

Regardless of whether players mean to use their helmets as weapons or not, they will have to evolve their style of play. It’s ok. Players have had to evolve every year a new rule is installed that affects style of play.

The league has instituted 47 new rules since 2002 with the intent to reduce concussions. In 2017, the most concussions were reported league wide since 2012, so if you are worried about football becoming less violent, don’t kid yourself.

“Our focus is how to take the head out of the game and make sure that we’re using the helmet as protection and it’s not being used as a weapon,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “That’s the core of what we’re focused on.”

It may be hard for current players like Swearinger (whose spelling acumen indicates he doesn’t value brains that much anyway) to come towards the reality of playing under this rule.

But former NFL players like Cam Jordan’s dad, Steve, who played for the Minnesota Vikings for 13 years, understand the negative impact of years of concussive hits. Along with eight former players, he has agreed to participate in Translational Genomics Research Institute’s study which is working to find indicators of CTE in living people.

So far, only brain examinations in the dead have been used to diagnose CTE. Under this protocol, doctors will study whether CTE indicators can be found in blood, urine, or saliva of the living.

“You go to these meetings with former players,” Jordan said, “and the hope is we’ll be able to do something that will make it better for future players and our own kids. Most of us who are former players, we have kids who play or have played youth sports. We want to help ameliorate that (diagnosing and treating head trauma).”

Only time will tell what the eventual ramifications will be, but I think we can all agree that hits like those in the videos above have no place in the sport. The times they are a changing, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.