GREEN BAY — Josh Hawkins had ridden a kid’s bike back from the practice field, removed his jersey and pads, and showered. And he still didn’t know exactly what he’d done wrong.
The Green Bay Packers third-year cornerback was hoping the NFL officials visiting training camp might illuminate him.
“I guess I led with my helmet. That’s what they said,” Hawkins said of the final play of Thursday’s practice, on which he was flagged for violating the NFL’s newly rewritten rule barring players from leading with their helmets when making contact. “But it wasn’t even a hard hit. I thought it was (incidental) helmet-to-helmet contact. I don’t know.”
It surely won’t be the last time a player will be confused by an official’s call this year, as referees, coaches and players alike will have to see just how the rule that league owners approved at the NFL meetings in March will be adjudicated. NFL referee Alex Kemp, whose crew worked Thursday’s practice and is staying through Saturday’s Family Night practice, sat in on defensive position meetings and showed an instructional video to players before practice began.
“We went over, ‘Hey, would this be helmet-to-helmet?’ And I think the reality is — and what I’m hoping as well — is, I think this thing is getting blown out of proportion,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I think there was a handful of hits last year that were egregious (that) had no place in the sport. So, I think they tried to take that out by putting this language in and everybody’s in some type of mass hysteria. But I don’t think — and this may be wishful thinking — that much is going to change.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some judgment calls that are going to be, when put in slo-mo will either look bad or look like they shouldn’t have been called. But I think the biggest thing from talking with the refs is, is it a football play? Because from pass rush to setting the edge on the run or taking on a double team, your head is attached to your body. It’s a football move. So, I think you hope that the refs do a good job of understanding that.
“I think it’s going to be an evolving rule because there’s so much interpretation. To me, I’m not really worried about it all that much. I don’t think much is going to change. I know everybody’s up in arms, but …”
The rule, which grabbed headlines this spring that the league’s clarification of the catch rule otherwise would have gotten, states in part, “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area. ... Violations of the rule will be easier to see and officiate when they occur in open space — as opposed to close line play — but this rule applies anywhere on the field at any time.”
Asked what he thinks of the new rule, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the point is “clearly to get those (hits) out of the game. The helmet is not a weapon.
“You’re going to have some (controversial) plays. This game isn’t played in slow motion, it’s not played on a replay. ... But we’ve got to be honest: There’s still going to be helmet-to-helmet contact. I think clearly there’s going to be a learning curve more for people outside of the game of football because it’s not going to be black and white.”
The rule is all-inclusive and not limited to defenseless players anymore, and it applies to offensive and defensive players alike. The penalty is for 15 yards, and the player can be ejected if the hit meets certain criteria, including if the contact was clearly avoidable. The NFL officials in New York will assess via replay whether the player should be ejected.
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“That’s the problem — it’s a gray area. We don’t know what’s going to be called,” Matthews said. “Your head is involved in some plays. And the plays where you can remove your head from it, that’s what they expect — especially with tackling or using it as a (weapon). Football’s football at the end of the day. Your head is going to be involved. You just try to limit that as much as possible.”
Kemp and his crew went through the Hawkins hit on film with the coaches and staff after practice and said the coaches agreed the call was the right one. Kemp said the hit was not ejection-worthy, however.
Asked what Hawkins should have done, Kemp replied, “He’s got to get his head to the side and hit with his shoulder to a different body part.
“That’s what we are trying to take out of the game. We’re trying to do this for the good of the players themselves, we’re trying to do it for the good of the game itself. … This is something they’re trying to legislate out of the game to make it safer.”
The rule was violated on the two concussion-causing hits Packers No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams absorbed last season — one from Chicago linebacker Danny Trevathan after a catch, the other from Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis after an interception. Both hits drew penalties — Trevathan for unnecessary roughness, Davis’ for an illegal blindside block — but neither player was ejected. Each player ended up serving a one-game suspension.
“I feel like they’re heading in the right direction as far as taking care of things, but I feel like this is kind of common sense,” Adams said. “I feel like the awareness needs to be higher than that. It shouldn’t take a rule change to be smart enough to realize — and I’m not insulting anyone’s intelligence — but if I see someone coming in with their head down and they dent a man’s facemask to where he’s passed out, then there should be a flag at least, if it’s not going to be an ejection.”
Adams said while the officials must make the call, “it’s really still on the players” to protect one another by not delivering hits that “could get them kicked out of the game.”
“Hopefully it does (make the game safer),” Adams said. “But we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, the NFL added another point of emphasis that comes a year too late for the Packers: Kemp confirmed that Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr’s takedown of quarterback Aaron Rodgers last October — when he drove Rodgers into the U.S. Bank Stadium turf after Rodgers had thrown a pass, resulting in a broken right collarbone — would now be a 15-yard penalty, even though Rodgers was outside the pocket.
That’s because Barr landed “with all or most of his body weight” on Rodgers, who had clearly established himself as a thrower and not a runner on the play.
“It was one of several plays that the competition committee got together and said” needed to change, Kemp said. “We know it can be done. The quarterback’s too important a layer to 32 clubs that they didn’t want that anymore.”