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Did the helmet rule actually work in 2018? And how will it change in 2019?

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Nearly every week between August and February, the NFL picks a handful of officiating calls to highlight in an online media video. The first installment, distributed last Friday, led off not with the much-talked-about pass interference reviews, but rather with two examples of the helmet rule in action during the Aug. 1 Hall of Fame game.

The first instance went uncalled by officials on the field. The second, according to senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, was flagged incorrectly.

With public attention focused on the recent addition of pass interference to replay review, the NFL is still trying to figure out how to administer it after last year’s officiating debacle. The helmet rule — prohibiting players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact with an opponent — is one of two points of emphasis for 2019, meaning officials have been asked to pay special attention to it. There is an expectation that it will be enforced more tightly on the field, but the difficulty involved with fulfilling that task makes the helmet rule one of the most enigmatic NFL edicts in recent memory.

“There’s an adjustment period involved, and everyone knows it,” said competition committee chairman Rich McKay. “These players didn’t play with this rule for a long time, meaning their entire career. There’s an adjustment period for on-field officials. We’re confident that … they are going to get better at it as they look for it more. But at the same time, we’re confident that we’re going to see less of these fouls because players are going to be more comfortable with it.”

The NFL wrote off traditional enforcement of the rule in its 2018 debut, an unprecedented decision that led to only 19 flags in 256 games. The league did, however, issue 28 fines and 139 warning letters to players who had in most cases committed fouls that went uncalled. That discrepancy, while preferable to a flood of penalties, called into question the integrity of the game and prompted fair questions about whether the rule was simply unenforceable lip service to the league’s health and safety apparatus.

The 2019 season should answer those concerns, one way or the other. Officials were given an offseason study guide to help them identify violations “to better recognize when players initiate helmet contact,” referee Adrian Hill said. Players and coaches, meanwhile, have heard the mantra now for 15 months.

“It’s a violent game,” said Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy, “but we as coaches have to be able to teach tackling the right way, and that’s keeping your head and helmet up.”

But the annual flood of young players into the league demands constant vigilance and reiteration; the helmet rule is different from anything at any other level of football. Players have always been coached to hit with their heads up but were never penalized if they didn’t and thus had little on-field incentive to avoid lowering the helmet.

When the rule was announced, many players predicted there would be instances when lowering the helmet was unavoidable. The NFL initiated a universal rules alignment initiative last season, designed to introduce similar rules from Pop Warner through high school and college, but it will be years before those efforts manifest in players entering the NFL.

In the meantime, we could continue to see plays such as those highlighted in last week’s NFL video. In the first, Denver Broncos safety Will Parks lowered his helmet and hit Atlanta Falcons running back Brian Hill in the hip with his helmet. The contact, which took place in the middle of the line and was clearly visible only from an end zone view, went unpenalized.

The second instance was more obvious but still went incorrectly adjudicated. Referee Walt Anderson’s crew flagged Hill for lowering his helmet to hit Broncos safety Dymonte Thomas after a run down the right sideline. Riveron said the call on Hill was correct, but demonstrated that Thomas also had lowered his head to initiate contact and should have been penalized as well.

There was a total of five flags thrown for violations of the helmet rule in the first 17 games of the preseason — a much slower pace than the chaotic 2018 preseason, but more than the average of 1.1 per week during the regular season. The continued focus, however, is not simply a means to align enforcement with behavior. The NFL also believes that the mere introduction of the rule changed behavior in 2018.

According to league data, concussions involving a player who lowered his head to initiate contact decreased by 20% in 2018 compared to 2017. A player lowering his head was still involved in about 50% of all concussions from helmet-to-helmet contact, and overall, 40% of all concussions still involved some kind of helmet-to-helmet contact in 2018.

“That is one data point and it is one year,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of health and safety initiatives. “That is not a lot of information. [But] helmet-to-helmet contact causing concussions, that number is 20% lower than it was a year ago. So that is positive thing. There’s obviously a lot more to do in that space. That is something that was very interesting to the competition committee as they continue to push and make an emphasis on this point. So that is a teaching point, a player-adoption point, a culture-change point, and a good one.”

The NFL’s efforts in this space have tested its ability to leverage a legitimate safety initiative against behavior that is genuinely difficult to change with a rule that is objectively hard to officiate. The league essentially punted on the first season and is taking a long-term approach. But how many years will it take to get there? Progress in 2019, defined by more appropriate officiating, is essential to getting there.



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Cowboys fall to Bears for 3rd consecutive loss, 6-7 record on season

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CHICAGO — Jerry Jones might not be in a position to keep Jason Garrett as Dallas Cowboys head coach anymore.

Thursday’s 31-24 loss to the Chicago Bears was the latest disappointment in a Cowboys’ season that has gone wrong but still has the potential to lead to a playoff appearance.

Jones has made only one in-season coaching change in his tenure as owner and general manager and, at times, Thursday’s game was reminiscent of Wade Phillips’ final game on Nov. 7, 2010, a 45-7 defeat to the Green Bay Packers.

The day after that loss Garrett was installed as interim head coach and has had the job ever since.

Thursday’s loss was the Cowboys’ third straight and as disheartening as any they have had because of what was on the line.

After the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Buffalo Bills, Jones said he would not make a coaching change and professed faith that Garrett was the right coach to change the team’s fortunes. Jones was envisioning the Cowboys running the table, winning the NFC East and becoming a threat to compete for a Super Bowl.

Given the performance Thursday, even Jones’ confidence has to be shaken with his team 6-7 with three games to play.

For the second straight game, the Cowboys’ offense opened with a first-possession touchdown. For the second straight game, things went downhill after that.

Like the loss to the Bills in which the defense allowed 26 straight points, they were scorched again, giving up 24 unanswered points to the Bears.

The Cowboys’ defense had a first-possession interception, its first takeaway in 263 snaps, but then gave up touchdowns on three of the next four possessions to close out the first half. The defense contributed mightily as well with three third-down penalties that kept Chicago’s touchdown drives alive.

The offense wasn’t much better. After opening with a season-long 17-play drive that covered 75 yards and ended on an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run, the offense went six straight possessions without a score and gained just 57 yards.

Jones has remained more patient with Garrett than he has with any other coach. Chan Gailey was fired after making the playoffs in 1998 and ’99. Dave Campo was finally let go after three straight 5-11 finishes in 2002. Phillips made the playoffs in 2007 and ’09 but was doomed by a 1-7 start to the 2010 season.

Garrett is the second-winningest coach in Cowboys’ history to Tom Landry with an 83-66 record, but he has not gotten past the divisional round of the playoffs in three postseason appearances. He entered this season with a must-win mandate since he does not have a contract past this season.

A potential issue for Jones is who to make the interim coach even if he wanted to make the switch. In 2010, Garrett was the clear choice. In 2019, passing game coordinator Kris Richard, who calls the defense, and coordinator Rod Marinelli have presided over a group that has disappointed.

Despite entering Thursday with the top-ranked offense in terms of yards per game, with first-year coordinator Kellen Moore, the offense has bogged down in recent weeks.

If there is any optimistic bent to the Cowboys’ playoff chances, which might save Garrett’s job, it’s this: According to ESPN’s FPI, the loss dropped the Cowboys’ chances of making it to the postseason to just 70 percent. Had they won, their chances would have improved to 77%.

But is there any sense of confidence that the Cowboys can right all their wrongs before they play the Los Angeles Rams at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 15 even if Jones makes a change at head coach?

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Patriots’ Tom Brady makes light of toe, elbow injuries

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was limited in practice Thursday with the team listing him with toe and right elbow injuries, which he addressed with humor.

“That might be the first time my toe’s ever been on the injury report. You know us Patriots. We’re pretty diligent about listing everything, so I guess we have to make mention of my toe now as well,” Brady said with a laugh Thursday night in his weekly interview with Westwood One sports.

Of his elbow, he joked, “Isn’t there some HIPAA violation or something like that, when I start talking about all my injuries? I’m doing pretty good. At this time of the year, I’ll take it. I’ll take anything if I’m still able to go out there and feel like I can play my best. I’m feeling really good, really positive about this week. We have a really great challenge ahead of us.”

Brady and the Patriots (10-2) host the Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) on Sunday.

“It is going to be a very, very tough game. Hopefully we can go out there and play with the fire and energy we have, and go out there and have a great performance,” said Brady, who acknowledged that his voice was still recovering from Sunday night’s road loss to the Houston Texans.

With No. 3 quarterback Cody Kessler (illness) also limited in practice Thursday, rookie Jarrett Stidham was the only Patriots quarterback to practice in full. Brady, 42, had been a full participant in practice Wednesday.

One other issue for the Patriots to potentially resolve before kickoff is solidifying their kicker position. In an unusual situation, the team has practiced the past two days without a kicker on the roster.

Veteran Nick Folk, who kicked in three games for the Patriots before he was waived last week with a non-football injury designation (appendix), is a top candidate to fill the role once medically cleared. Kai Forbath, who replaced Folk in Sunday’s loss to the Texans and was released Monday, could also be re-signed.

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Rams’ Todd Gurley on board with getting bigger workload

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — When Sean McVay was asked Wednesday if there was a reason behind running back Todd Gurley’s recent increase in carries, the Los Angeles Rams coach responded, “Me not being an idiot.”

A day later, Gurley didn’t disagree.

“He said it. I didn’t,” Gurley said Thursday, a small grin on his face. “That’s all I got to say.”

Throughout much of the Rams 7-5 season, McVay has been eager to rely on the passing game and hesitant to commit to the run.

The focal point of McVay’s offense the past two seasons, Gurley has yet to produce a signature game, the kind that earned him a four-year extension, with $45 million in guarantees, before last season.

However, recently, Gurley’s role has increased.

The Rams relied on the All-Pro back to grind out a Week 11 win over the Chicago Bears, as he tied his season high, rushing for 97 yards on a season-best 25 carries.

Then, in a Week 13 blowout over the Arizona Cardinals, he rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

In each of those games, Gurley had at least 100 scrimmage yards, a mark he reached in only one other instance this season, a Week 1 win over the Carolina Panthers.

“He’s done a nice job handling a bigger workload,” said McVay, whose 7-5 Rams have only an 18 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

“It’s been fine,” said Gurley, when asked how he’s responded to the larger workload. “Obviously, what is it? Week 13, Week 14? Everyone’s kind of feeling the long season. Just got to do what you got to do to get your body right and your mind right for each Sunday.”

It was uncertain going into the season how Gurley would be utilized because of issues surrounding his left knee, which kept him sidelined for the final two games of the 2018 season.

But Gurley and the Rams have repeatedly said that his knee is fine, while McVay has continued to deny that Gurley has been on any sort of load management program this season.

“It has nothing to do with that,” McVay said. “It was really just, you’re just kind of working through the 2019 season — the best way to utilize all of our players and figuring out what our identity is.”

When asked if he would like to continue with the increased amount of carries through final four games, Gurley said, “I mean it doesn’t matter. … Team sport, only one person can get the ball.”

In 11 games this season, Gurley has averaged 58 yards on 14 carries, down from the 89 yards on 18 carries that he averaged in 2018.

After producing back-to-back seasons rushing for more than 1,200 yards, Gurley has rushed for 642 yards on 154 carries.

He has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game, after doing it six times last season.

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