[Editor's note: This column has been updated to reflect Wednesday's ratification of the rule change which now penalizes players for intentionally using the crown of their helmet to hit opponents.]
The most important news coming out of this week's NFL owners meetings doesn't involve Wes Welker's defection to Denver, Jeffrey Lurie's push for a Super Bowl in Philadelphia or the possible abolition of the "tuck rule." Instead, it's all about the league trying to legislate what running backs do with their noggins. You knew there would be an instant uproar as soon as word spread about runners possibly being penalized for using the crowns of their helmets to punish tacklers. What those unhappy critics couldn't see was that this type of move should've been pondered a long time ago.
There had to be a bit of chuckling among NFL defensive players when the discussion started about this latest proposed rule change. The league's competition committee has decided there's enough evidence of backs battering opponents with their helmets that a rule change needs to be debated. The new rule states that any runner using his head to initiate contact will receive a 15-yard penalty. There are other details that apply -- incidental contact won't be considered an infraction nor will plays inside the tackle box -- but the idea alone makes perfect sense.
The NFL has been trying to change its violent culture for most of the past three years. The league also has been doing that primarily by picking on defensive players. Defenders have been penalized and fined for vicious hits, and many have complained about how unfair the punishments have been on borderline shots. It's finally time for offensive players to know how frustrating it can be to make over a sport at such a mind-boggling pace. Now that this rule has actually passed, they'll quickly learn how hard it is to adapt to a softer way of playing a game founded on brutality.
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte called the new rule "an absurd idea" when the proposal was first reported Sunday. Hall of Fame running backs Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk also blasted the idea, with Smith pointing out that it's literally impossible for backs to avoid using their heads when carrying the ball because they're taught to lean forward while running. Welcome to the club, fellas. Anybody who thinks the league is really concerned about what is and isn't possible for pro football players is sorely mistaken about how much commissioner Roger Goodell wants to alter this sport.
Defensive players made similar complaints when the league clamped down on their ability to strike defenseless receivers. Some said intimidation was an essential part of the game, while most noted how difficult it would be to slow themselves down once they had a target in their sights. Then a funny thing happened, at least according to the NFL. Increasingly more defenders have found safer ways to attack opponents -- the league determined a legal area that could be struck by tacklers -- and fewer players have found themselves making a visit to Goodell's office.
It's still not a perfect system for defenders, not by many means. It's also very realistic for running backs to change their style if it actually comes down to that. For one thing, there aren't that many runners in the league who use their helmets as weapons in the first place. The competition committee studied every helmet play in Week 16 of last season and found only five backs who would've been penalized under the proposed rule.
There's also the fairness factor. Even if more backs end up running out of bounds or more officials wind up throwing flags (Smith suspects both trends would happen), you're not going to find many defenders empathizing with such concerns. The AFC North has been filled with linebackers and safeties, mainly on the Steelers and Ravens, who've fumed over the fines and yellow flags they've drawn in this gentler era of the NFL. At the very least, men in their position should know that something is being considered to help balance the playing field somewhat.
That is the real issue here. It's not just that the NFL has been trying to reshape its game and its image. It's that the league's attempts have led to far more advantages for offenses than they'd ever need. Sure, massive amounts of yardage and high-scoring shootouts make the sport entertaining for those in the stands and others watching at home. But it can also cheapen the spirit of the game if one side is playing at a disadvantage.
The NFL was creeping closer to such a dynamic the longer it pushed this culture change. The less comfortable defenders felt in attacking opposing players, the more aggressive offensive players became when operating in the middle of the field. There's no doubt that the game becomes safer when more headhunters are held in check. It also become easier for massive targets like New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to dominate the middle of the field, especially when they know they won't be put to sleep.
The league has had ample time to realize that offensive players are just as capable of causing injuries. It's reassuring to know it finally found a reason to move forward with a bit of legislation that surely will generate many more critics. It may be unpopular with bigger, bruising backs -- like Forte, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson -- but it's also a sign of the times. Goodell wants a different kind of league. Everybody should be considered fair game.
Now that the helmet rule has passed, get ready for more whining. The NFL opened this Pandora's box when it decided to change the way defenses played the game. Given where the league is heading, it's only fair that it leaves offensive players feeling similarly annoyed by what's happening to their game.