By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
On the day the NFL ended the Tuck Rule, it passed the “Crown Rule” after every team but the Cincinnati Bengals voted in favor of it at Wednesday’s annual meeting.
This is one that could be very impactful depending on how it is officiated. Ball carriers (and defenders) will now be penalized 15 yards for forcibly using the crown of their helmet outside of the tackle box.
It is quickly stirring up strong feelings among former players (mostly running backs) and experts. Without getting into the emotional debate of safety vs. physical nature, let’s look at some facts.
At a press conference the other day, the NFL mentioned this is a penalty that should only be called 35 times per season. Now this contradicts the total later referenced from the NFL’s study of Week 10 and Week 16 last year.
In those 30 games, the NFL said 11 plays would have been flagged. Extrapolating that to a full 256-game regular season, there would be 93.9 of these penalties in a season.
The NFL’s rushing king, Adrian Peterson, is known for his physical running style. If the reigning MVP is going to lose some of his greatness, then that could be a major problem for the league.
Peterson’s recovery story was a big one for the NFL as he is one of the most popular players. You do not hamper your superstars.
That is why we went to the video to study Peterson’s 2011 and 2012 seasons – a total of 556 carries including the playoffs – for just his rushing attempts. Any play is a potential flag, though we wanted to focus on the running game.
At its absolute worst, the Crown Rule would have impacted 1.98 percent of Peterson’s runs the last two years.
Have you breathed a sigh of relief yet? You will after we show you the 11 plays.
Defining the Crown Rule
Let’s not pretend in March 2013 that anyone knows exactly how this rule will be enforced this season. For now, here are some of the key terms that come with it.
Forcible contact: there has to be clear evidence of the player using his helmet as a weapon to make contact. Players will still be allowed to lower their heads, but you cannot use it to ram the opponent. Incidental contact will not be penalized. It must be blatant.
Cleveland’s rookie running back Trent Richardson apparently made quite the impression in his debut last season as this hit on Philadelphia’s Kurt Coleman has become the leading example of what is now illegal.
Peterson had a similar play after making a reception in 2009 when he trucked Pittsburgh’s William Gay.
Being in the open field with Peterson can be dangerous, though he is not as willing to make that type of play as some may think. Keep in mind the Vikings were down late in the fourth quarter there.
Tackle box: These penalties will only be for plays outside the tackle box, which extends from tackle to tackle and three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So short-yardage plays should be fine. Most running plays gain three or fewer yards in the NFL, so keep that in mind. The plays in the open field are the ones to watch.
The league is essentially looking for blatant uses of the helmet as a weapon in the open field.
Peterson’s 2011 season
Looking through each game’s carries, here are all of the plays we deemed questionable enough for a flag under the Crown Rule. Keep in mind Peterson missed four games with injuries in 2011.
No. 1: Week 8 at Carolina
Amazingly it took eight games to find a good example for Peterson. With 6:48 to go in the second quarter, Peterson cuts back to the sideline where he lowers his head with a defender coming in the same way.
According to the NFL, both players would be penalized for using the crown of their helmet here. Offsetting fouls would mean a replay of the down.
No. 2: Week 10 at Green Bay
With 2:47 left in the first quarter Peterson finds a hole up the middle and exits the tackle box. He lowers his head and makes contact with A.J. Hawk, who also appears to be doing the same thing.
Was it a devastating hit? Not really, but it could easily be deemed as a penalty by the referee now and on either player.
In a season with 12 games and 208 carries, Peterson had just two questionable runs under the Crown Rule. That is 0.96 percent of his carries.
Peterson’s 2012 MVP season
If you think Peterson was running harder last year during his MVP campaign, then you would be right.
No. 1: Week 1 vs. Jacksonville
It only took four carries into the season this time to find a questionable play. It came against the Jaguars in the second quarter with 13:19 left. Peterson runs outside the numbers, so he is out of the tackle box. He lowers his helmet to a player who is coming in low himself.
Was this collision a bit of the old ultra-violence the NFL is trying to get rid of? Probably not, but under the new rules a referee’s judgment could lead to a flag here.
No. 2: Week 2 at Indianapolis
A week later against the Colts (12:00 left in the first quarter), Peterson was again running in open space outside of the tackle box and decided to pop his head down to deliver some punishment.
Seems like a no-no going forward, Adrian.
No. 3: Week 7 vs. Arizona
With 8:46 left in the first quarter and the end zone in sight, Peterson puts his head down to ram his way through for the score.
What was once a great play for a touchdown may now result in a big 15-yard penalty (a spot-foul penalty). In this example, since Peterson made the contact after getting the first down, Minnesota would likely have a 1st-and-10 at the ARZ 17 following the penalty.
No. 4: Week 8 vs. Tampa Bay
As NFL Network’s Brad Nessler notes, Peterson is “putting his head down” and you can hear a good collision on the 5-yard run with 3:14 left in the second quarter.
Now the tackle box extends two yards out from each tackle and this play may have just been in that range, though it is tough to tell.
No. 5: Week 9 at Seattle
With 7:52 left in the second quarter, Peterson is running in the open field and uses the crown of his helmet late on a 15-yard run.
This definitely seems forcible enough for a penalty.
No. 6: Week 12 at Chicago
This is not so much an example of a possible penalty as it is an example to show how plays can look innocent, which means they should not draw a flag. On a run with 13:56 left in the second quarter, Peterson put his head down but does not appear to hit much with it.
However, after his next carry FOX showed a replay with Tony Siragusa pointing out Peterson “sort of got a little helmet-to-helmet.” I initially did not notice much on the play to consider it until accidentally seeing this replay.
Siragusa thinks Peterson may have jarred his neck on the play, but he returned without any issues. This probably does not meet the forcible contact factor of the rule, but such a play can be dangerous and you can see why the NFL is trying to limit how often players lead with their helmet.
No. 7: Week 12 at Chicago
Now the last play may not have been a penalty, but this one from the same game will be. It came with 1:04 left in the third quarter. FOX’s Daryl Johnston crew loved the run, but these plays look illegal now as this is basically the Trent Richardson play without the helmet popping off the defender.
On replay Siragusa even added “He is the hammer, not the nail on this one. Gotta keep your head up though. He can’t put his head down like that. That’s when you get hurt.”
Yep, that’s a penalty now.
No. 8: Week 13 at Green Bay
As part of a big day for Peterson, with 0:59 left in the third quarter he gets to the sideline for a 23-yard run, but lowers his head to deliver some punishment late.
Troy Aikman and Joe Buck discuss how long Peterson will play given his physical running style.
No. 9: Week 15 at St. Louis
On his first carry of the day with 12:20 left in the first quarter, Peterson gets outside a bit and lowers his head for a hit. Without any replay it is hard to tell if he delivered a forcible hit or not, but this is a questionable one.
That was also the last one, meaning nine plays out of 370 (2.43 percent).
There you have it. Eleven plays out of 556. A few, if not most, likely would not even be flagged. So this is not even a two-percent problem for arguably the league’s most physical runner.
Maybe now we can breathe a sigh of relief. At least until the referees are in charge of calling it instead of the people who created the rule.
Conclusion: Officiating will be the key
The Crown Rule is a good rule in spirit. Safety is important, and plays like the Trent Richardson one are not necessary to have in the game. As long as the rule sticks to eliminating these blatantly obvious plays then it should not be the kind of penalty that changes the course of football as we know it.
The NFL first said it may only be 35 flags a season. With players understanding it is now illegal, you can definitely assume that predicted number of 93.9 based on the two weeks of data to decrease, though perhaps not as significantly to where it is just 35 times.
Think of it as the new facemask or roughing the passer penalty. Are those significant calls? Sure, but they do not have the frequency to say they have changed the way the game is played.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, the 2012 season featured 74 facemask penalties and 88 roughing the passer penalties. That is consistent enough with previous seasons.
If the NFL’s forecasting is anywhere near accurate, then the Crown Rule should come into effect even less than those 15-yard penalties do.
However, application of this rule by officials could be a huge problem, especially in 2013. The rule is layered in subjectivity, leaving a lot of room for human error in making a judgment call.
- What if the referee thought he saw a helmet-to-helmet hit, but the player only made contact with his shoulder? This happens enough as it is.
- What if the running back was 2.8 yards down the field (in real time) when he used his helmet and the official thought it was beyond the allowed three yards?
- What if the running back was just inside the tackle box as he used the helmet, and the referee thought he was outside?
When push comes to shove in crunch time and the running back has to get that first down, what is going to stop him from putting his head down and doing what is necessary for it?
The key thing to remember: since it is a penalty that means it cannot be challenged. Yikes.
There needs to be a large amount of time devoted to teaching this year for both officials and teams on how this will be called. Running backs have a natural tendency to lower their pad level to protect themselves, which of course means their head will go down.
But it is still usually a well-calculated decision to use your head as a weapon in the open field. So now backs have finally been warned to stop in the way defenders have for years.
Recall how the argument for defenders getting flagged in the same situation was that the offensive player would lower their head, leaving them almost no time to react. No matter which side you play on, it is common for players to get low as they brace for impact.
This could become the trickiest part of enforcing the rule. In several of the Peterson runs, you can see the defender leading with his crown as well. This rule can even the playing field, though how many of these plays will become runs for nothing as offsetting penalties are called?
Again, the Crown Rule should not be a game-changer as long as it is called on only the most blatant of plays. It may take away some fun, physical plays, but it will save the NFL’s ass down the road from lawsuits.
Adrian Peterson is still going to run like a Greek God, though he just may have to spare a mere mortal’s life (like William Gay) the next time he’s in the open field.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.