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Does NFL helmet rule change what football's supposed to be?

By Tim Graham

When rookie running back Earl Campbell lowered the crown of his helmet into Los Angeles Rams linebacker Isaiah Robertson's sternum, blasting him backward like a leaf in a hurricane, then trudged onward while his jersey tore away, the sports world marveled.

When running back Walter Payton, hips swiveling and knees pumping, stopped twice to duck his head and ram two Kansas City Chiefs defenders on a memorable 1977 run, fans witnessed a relentless force.

NFL.com rated those plays among the top 64 in league history for a bracket-style tournament to determine the best. Campbell's is a No. 6 seed. Payton's is a No. 4 seed.

Campbell and Payton likely would be penalized 15 yards and have their unforgettable runs wiped out in today's NFL.

The NFL adopted new rules for 2013, including unsportsmanlike conduct for ball carriers who use the crowns of their helmets on a defender when both are outside the tackle box. The box spans from tackle-to-tackle, 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and all the way back to the end zone behind the line of scrimmage.

The NFL also voted to abolish the tuck rule, which helped establish a New England Patriots dynasty.

But the controversial new helmet rule drew the most attention. At a time when the NFL is being sued by scores of former players over head injuries, the league wanted to implement an additional safety measure.

Officials will need to make difficult judgment calls here. Running backs, including Buffalo Bills captain Fred Jackson and Chicago Bears star Matt Forte, tweeted their displeasure.

"It is not going to be over-officiated," St. Louis Rams coach and competition committee member Jeff Fisher told the NFL Network. "The key thing here is you can deliver a blow with shoulder, with face, with hairline. It is just deliberately striking with the crown" that has been outlawed.

"The helmet is a protective device," Fisher continued. "We know there is going to be helmet-to-helmet contact. The running back has an opportunity to protect the football, lower the head, lower the shoulder, as long as he doesn't load up and strike with the top of the helmet. That is also the case with a defensive player."

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock bemoaned the rule by saying the game had crossed a line into no longer being football. Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said "It's a stupid rule."

Fisher predicted players and fans will warm up to the concept.

"There will be forthcoming plays and examples of things we want to get out of the game," Fisher said, "and when you see them, you will say, 'I understand why.'

"This is not going to change the game. It is not going to be over-officiated. We are just protecting the players against themselves."

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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