We've discussed a few times this season the complicated nature of the NFL rule book, especially how rules designed to address a specific instance can have unintended consequences. Attempts to repair the ensuing rabbit holes have bloated the rule book and, in some cases, overburdened officials who must keep straight the exceptions and nuances.
With one minute, 32 seconds remaining, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell took the handoff, found a hole on the left side of the line and lowered his shoulders in hopes of plowing into the end zone. He was met by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, among others, and the ensuing contact knocked off Bell's helmet. It also launched Bell into the end zone, where officials initially awarded a touchdown (after Bell's unprotected head bounced violently off the turf.)
All scores are automatically reviewed on instant replay, of course, and eventually someone remembered a rule that was added in 2010. Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 lists the reasons why a dead ball should be declared. Forward progress, kicking a live ball, and fair catches are all among the 18 examples listed. The final one, marked (r) for those who love legislative organization, reads: "when a runner's helmet comes completely off."
This rule was enacted in 2010, in response to plays like one that occurred in 2007 with Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. In that instance, Witten caught a pass 23 yards downfield. Two Philadelphia Eagles defenders converged on him, and the ensuing contact knocked off his helmet. Witten stayed upright, however, and ran bare-headed another 31 yards downfield before he was tackled.
No NFL player is going to take himself out of a play like that, regardless of the danger involved, so the league eventually added in example "(r)" to do it for him. It's highly doubtful the rule was intended for plays like Bell's run, because the contact knocked him to the ground anyway.
Technically, referee Clete Blakeman was correct to overrule the touchdown. The contact occurred before Bell crossed into the end zone. The play was over at the moment his helmet flew off, meaning the ball was to be marked wherever it was at that moment. In the end, it did not hurt the Steelers' chances for winning. They scored two plays later.
So what is the solution? The natural response would be to add an exception for players who are knocked to the ground by the contact. After all, the intent is to prevent players from extending the play once they've lost their helmet. Bell wasn't going to extend the play.
On the other hand, a seemingly simple solution adds to the already complex web of rules, exceptions and nuance that officials are tasked with tracking. What other possibilities could arise? What if a player is stepping out of bounds but trying to extend the ball past the first-down marker? And, while we're at it, what does it say about the state of head protection in the NFL that rules are enacted to address when they come off? Why can't we find helmets and chin straps that stay fastened?
I suppose those final two questions are for another day. At the moment, we're reminded once again of how difficult it is to account for every possible play in a football game -- and the unintended consequences that effort can create.