NFL broadens helmet-hit rule, working on targeting rule

The NFL approved the broadening of the helmet-hit rule that will penalize players who lead with the crown of their helmets to initiate contact against an opponent on any play, NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay announced Tuesday.

Offending players would be penalized 15 yards and may be disqualified depending on the severity of the hit. McKay said the Competition Committee and the league "felt it was time" to make the change in order to better enhance player safety. Clubs will continue to work on a targeting rule similar to the college football rule in which players would be automatically ejected for hitting with the helmet. Nothing regarding a targeting rule has been finalized by the NFL.

"For us this is a pretty significant change," McKay said during a news conference at the Annual League Meeting in Orlando. "This one technique, we saw so many hits when a player lowered his head and delivered a hit and either hurt himself or the player he was hitting," McKay said. "It was time for a change of this magnitude.

"This has very little requirement to it," McKay continued. "This is simply if you lower your head to initiate contact and you make contact with an opponent it's a foul."

The NFL plans to bring coaches, players and team officials to New York at some point in the next couple months to work out enforcement specifics regarding the rule, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported. They're hoping to have the disciplinary aspects of the rule finalized by the Spring League Meeting in May. For now, the teams are in agreement that there should be a replay component to the ejection process, Pelissero added.

The rule comes after injury data released by the league in January showed a 13.5 percent increase in diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017 (243 to 281) over the preseason and regular season. The increase comes after 28 percent of concussion evaluations were self-reported by players -- a nine-point increase over 2016.

McKay said the hit that led to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffering a spinal injury during a game in December was not necessarily what spurred the league to expand the helmet-hit rule.

"I think the impetus was the research," McKay said, "because the more we saw of the concussion plays and the more there was a common technique, it became more apparent that we needed to get out of situationally saying, 'Well, if a player is targeted or if a defenseless player is in the air we need to get to the technique that can protect the person doing the hitting also.' It could be Ryan Shazier, it could be many others."

The NFL has made 49 rule changes since 2002 to protect players, improve practice methods, better educate players and personnel on concussions and strengthen the league's medical protocols. The NFL deploys 29 medical professionals on the sidelines for each game. Working with the NFL Players Association, the league enforces a concussion protocol for players that has been instrumental in immediately identifying and diagnosing concussions and other head-related injuries.

In addition to broadening the helmet-hit rule, the NFL also approved a simplified catch rule and made several other rule book modifications on Tuesday.