For those fans who live under a rock, you might not have heard yet that Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen exited the game in the fourth quarter after taking a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit from Jonathan Jones. The refs flagged Jones for the hit, but did not eject him from the game. The decision to allow Jones to continue playing has drawn a significant amount of ire from the fan base. But according to NFL rules and guidance, they got it right. Let’s examine the rule.
There are two opposing thoughts on the play and it’s my belief it’s the reason for the disconnect. There’s reality and then there’s the rules. Nowhere is this more glaring than the number of times I’ve seen someone state that Jones was flagged for “helmet-to-helmet.” He was not. There actually isn’t even such a rule for the circumstances of the play, where Allen was a runner who had not given himself up.
The actual flag was unnecessary roughness under rule 12-2-8(i) which reads as: “using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent.” You may have noticed that nowhere in that rule does it take into account whether or not the hit was helmet-to-helmet.
For a broader understanding of what the NFL is intending, let’s look at the rule that most people thought Jones was flagged under—12-2-10 also known as “use of the helmet”—that is usually penalized as “lowering the head to initiate contact.” You may remember this rule caused a stir last season when it was first implemented. So much so that I made a primer for it following the Bills vs. Carolina Panthers preseason game.
While the location in the rule book has changed, the rule has not. It reads. “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” You may notice that this, too, has nothing to do with helmet-to-helmet. Under both rules it makes zero difference where you strike an opponent. The only difference between the two rules is that the latter has a component of lowering the head. Think “eyes to the ground.” Which leads us to the spirit of the rule.
The entire point of either rule isn’t to penalize every helmet-to-helmet shot (especially since neither rule mentions anything of the kind). The NFL released a fact sheet to accompany the use of a helmet penalty last year. If you clicked through, what you’ll find is a rule intended to promote the “heads up” style of tackling. There’s no evidence to suggest the NFL believes it can legislate helmet-to-helmet collisions. The two rules are intended to promote a tackling style that reduces the risk of such hits. If you put on five minutes of any NFL game you’re sure to see legal helmet-to-helmet contact. I can’t state this enough, it’s a rule intended to reduce, not eliminate blows to the head.
So why was Jones flagged, and why one penalty rather than the other? Let’s take a look at a still of the hit.
For me personally, I prefer the lowering the head penalty rather than unnecessary roughness. But to be fair, I got to see it more than once before making that call. Both rules have a component of using the helmet to make contact and there’s zero doubt that Jones hit Allen helmet-first. So the question then becomes “did he lower his helmet?”
I think he did, but in the still his eyes aren’t right at the ground. He lowered his head, but not completely, making this an understandable gray area for the refs. Notice too the line on the image. Jones hasn’t established a “linear” body position, which is visualized as the torso running parallel to the ground. If we’re being objective, aside from leading with his helmet Jones is tackling pretty well based on the fact sheet. And he was flagged for the one thing he did wrong.
Now both rules allow for “disqualification,” which is more commonly referred to as “ejection.” For the roughness penalty the hit needs to be considered “flagrant.” This is not defined in the rules. For lowering the head, there’s a three-prong test officials were told to look at. Because of the similarity in the rules, it’s highly likely the refs are looking at similar standards. Let’s put Jones’s hit through the three-prong test.
- Unobstructed path to his opponent—No doubt about it
- Contact clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options—Also very clear
- Player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet—This absolutely did not occur
I keep harping on this, but it’s because it’s critical; Helmet-to-helmet contact is not in that test. The NFL talks and acts like the helmet-to-helmet blows are the focus and to some degree they are. However the rules make it difficult for the officiating crew to use that as a standard. If the NFL has such a difficult time connecting the dots, it’s no wonder that fans do as well.
Before we close I’d like to quickly address one other common thought. Specifically, that the enforcement is hit or miss on these types of hits. Micah Hyde spoke out and indicated that a person hitting Tom Brady the same way would be ejected. I’m not a fan of this argument. Aside from comparing to something that didn’t happen, Brady is notorious for giving himself up way too early and not attempt to carry grown men around like toddlers. A player getting hit like this while giving himself up like Brady would likely be, or when the play is effectively dead is certainly a better case for ejection. One has to look no further than Vontaze Burfict’s ejection yesterday to see what I mean.
The rules contain a level of subjectivity and because of that there will always be valid complaints. But in the context of the parameters given to officials, most of the time the decisions actually make sense. Dirty hit? Maybe a little. Dirty enough to be disqualified? Not quite.