The NFL’s Ban on Crown-of-Helmet Hits

The NFL’s new rule prohibiting some hits with the crown of the helmet is being called ‘controversial’ in almost every news piece it appears in, to the point where it’s drowning out another new protective measure to eliminate peel-back blocks. Marshall Faulk has been particularly vocal, calling the ruling “crazy” and “stupid,” and citing head-up/face-up hits as causes of injury, including the concussion Steven Ridley incurred from Bernard Pollard during last year’s AFC championship game. I’m in the camp that believes the head-up rule is one that’s going to make football a slightly safer sport for a variety of reasons without drastically changing the game.

The instant of collision between Steven Ridley and Bernard Pollard; notice a slight flaw in Faulk's reasoning.

It’s a foregone conclusion that our bodies never evolved to endure head impacts. The position where the spinal column can best absorb force (a neutral posture that results in crown-first hits in football) is the weakest position for the neck muscles. Our large, thin skulls aren’t dense enough to withstand severe trauma, nor are they faceted to deflect blows. Finally, the brain itself is structurally fragile and anchored in only one location, which means it can twist and actually bounce against the skull during external impact; it’s suspected the gyri and sulci (the “wrinkles” in the brain) evolved to limit the amount of brain surface exposed to contact during head trauma, but even if true it’s a bit like saying your skeleton protects you from gunfire–it’s true, but not very practical.

The fragility of the skull and the attached sensory organs led us to adopt protective behaviors to keep us safe. Almost paradoxically, protective helmets and pads put athletes at risk by nullifying these behaviors. The advent of contact sports—especially collision sports with hard helmets—runs counter to these behaviors. In football, the head and face are protected from the superficial wounds that would otherwise accrue with repeated blows. Without a helmet, concussion-inducing hits would lead to deep lacerations, fractured bones, broken teeth, displaced eyes, and other injuries that prevent subsequent immediate hits and deter future activities of the kind.

With the helmet, only the brain is unprotected, and its ability to send damage-indicating sensory signals is limited. Unlike a sensitive piece of anatomy such as the nose or lips, the brain has no sensors for detecting damage to itself—put simply, it can’t feel pain in the normal sense. This is great for doctors, who can perform brain procedures with only local anesthetics, but not so much for gauging our own head trauma. If we felt neurons tearing or being battered during a punch the same way we’d feel our nose breaking or lip splitting, football would be a very different game. Football isn’t the only sport to fall victim here. Boxing does much the same thanks to gloves and tape, which both limit superficial facial injuries and protect the bones in the hands, while allowing tremendous amounts of force to impact opponents’ heads.

Head-up hitting can help alleviate some of these factors. First, there are behavioral aspects. Face-up hitters are more likely to move under control and at slower speeds, which limits the force being applied to the head. They also tend to position themselves in a way that avoids a head-on collision. Part of this is an instinctual desire to protect the face, which can steer players towards more shoulder-to-shoulder hits. It’s also tactical in that a player with his head up, eyes open, and moving at a controlled speed is better able to avoid or deflect contact (in the case of breaking tackles and shedding blocks) or to make plays that might lead to better on-field results than a hard hit (such as a form tackle, play on a ball, or proper stalk block.)

There are also mechanical advantages to head-up hitting. I mentioned earlier the weak muscle position of the crown-first hit. This is because a neutral head position requires the muscles of the neck to work in balance with each other in a relatively loose manner while the spine is largely responsible for positioning. In this situation, there is little way for force to be dispersed from receiving angled hits; neither the brain nor spine is aligned to counter them, and by the time the muscles react to counter the blow, it’s already come and gone. This is part of why earhole hits can so often lead to concussions: the head not only takes the initial blow, but the neck muscles can’t react quickly enough to prevent rebound trauma caused by the head whipping around like a speed bag.

Head-up hitting, on the other hand, locks the head both at the end of its ability to extend and butts the base of the helmet against the shoulder pads and neck rolls/collars. There’s a slight measure of absorptive give (which might be helpful), but for the head to significantly whip backwards on impact the entire body essentially has to move along with it, thus offering much more protection from whipping. Head-up hitting also actively and dominantly engages the upper portion of the trapezius muscles and other thick neck extensors, which are the strongest muscles in the neck. Rather than being in a reactive balancing act with weaker flexors, the upper traps and extensors are already tensed against blows before contact is even made, which reduces extra motion in both axes.

Trapezius highlighted in red; note the size compared to other muscles attached to the neck and skull.

Looking back, Faulk’s argument about the Ridley/Pollard hit is specious—Ridley actually lowered his head to use the crown of his helmet against Pollard’s earhole, despite being in a fairly upright position. In doing so, he negated the absorptive ability of his body and relied on the weaker muscles of the neck. Essentially he contorted himself into a poor position. Had he kept his head back, there may have been only a glancing blow between helmets, with most of the impact occurring at the shoulders (which ended up happening during the hit, anyways) and he may have been able to better absorb force from the hit, though it’s not guaranteed as I’ll note below. Pollard is in a vulnerable position, too, though because he’s tensed and aligned as a result of essentially looking up at Ridley just before impact, he’s better protected.

Is the head-up hit a solution to football concussions?  Not at all. It’s really only applicable to players in the secondary, and not to QBs or linemen. In terms of the hits the rule is designed to soften, the trapezius is strong, but not strong enough to consistently overcome the force of angled linebackers or arcing receivers. Given that leading with the crown also has an instinctual element in that it can protect the face during impacts, it’s going to be tough to teach: we might see a ton of minor face-up collisions while the big hits still turn into crown-first blows.

Even straight ahead collisions like the back-on-backer hits the rule seems to target are going to still cause concussions.  Head-up hit forces created by football players at any level can lead to brain injury, and the sport is far too chaotic to guarantee only stable, evenly-matched hits. Referring again to the Ridley/Pollard hit, where Ridley likely lowered his head without thinking of the act, there’s also no good protective strategy for an upright player or someone in mid-stride/mid-leap. It’s extremely difficult for even a fully-readied player to overcome a mid-air hit followed by a slam to the ground. Even if someone in Ridley’s situation avoids the frontal tackler or limits initial contact, players coming in from the sides are still major threats, too.

And for Ridley specifically, his chin would have been exposed during the play had he not lowered his head. Crown-on-chin blows are like uppercuts from sledgehammers, and it’s tough to imagine a player not only giving away his chin, but doing so on faith that a defender won’t hit it.  Airborne and upright hits are just damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situations where avoiding them is the only safe measure.

There’s also a devil in the rule’s details: leading with the crown is only banned outside of the tackle box, meaning short interior runs and blocks will probably still resemble a documentary on bighorn sheep.  More generally, if repeated subconcussive blows lead to the chronic problems that some suspect (or are a greater problem than occasional concussions), a head-up tackle rule only masks the real problem. In the final measure, the rule will likely help the immediate health of players by turning some hard crown hits into wrap tackles. But ascribing anything more than that is a stretch.

The Isolation Play

The Isolation run, or “Iso,” is about as direct as football gets.  A classic I-formation play, it has everybody on the line manhandle the nearest defender, while the receivers shoot inside to pick-up force and fill players.  The fullback takes a running charge at an intentionally unblocked or “isolated” linebacker; the tailback takes the handoff at a full sprint and follows this human battering ram through the hole:

 

Isolation play run to the strong side; SLB is the isolated defender.

“Inserting” the fullback through the line of scrimmage like this creates an extra gap for the defense (especially linebackers) to worry about. And because the tailback can cut to the left or the right of the lead block, deeper defenders on both sides of the formation have to make the right reads.  Since Iso’s run into the teeth of the defense, they’re usually short-gainers, though this is compensated for by their playaction potential–it’s hard for linebackers to not creep up when they’ve got two backs making a beeline for them.

I’m a child of the 90’s, so for a long time I considered the Iso play to be football at its purest.  It was the greatest common denominator among the top-level teams.  The NFL was still largely familiarizing itself with zone schemes, spill defenses, post-steroid era physiques, and spread offenses, an environment that favored the straight-forward Iso and teams like the Redskins and Cowboys, who took advantage of the play.  Meanwhile, running-based college programs like Nebraska leaned on the Iso to bludgeon lesser teams into submission, especially at the end of games when the option was an unnecessary risk.  (A close cousin of the Iso would be the interior Lead play, which generally asks the fullback to hit the first man he sees, as opposed to seeking out a specific player; note that you’ll sometimes see “Iso” and “Lead” used interchangeably.)

Emmitt Smith cuts off a block by Daryl Johnston.

Most high schools, meanwhile, played the same I-formation schemes.  Prior to the public adoption of the Internet, it was extremely hard to use new football concepts even if you subscribed to all the latest magazines and regularly attended coaching clinics.  Of the two best-publicized schemes of the time—I-formation, passing-tree ball that borrowed from Coryell, and split-back, route-concept schemes associated with Walsh—the I-formation was easier to teach and easier to match talent-wise, so it was either what most coaches knew, or what they could easily pick up.

Iso and Lead plays are more common the further down the ranks you go. To be honest, the only play I remember from JV is “Pro-right, 24 Ice,”  which was just a strong-side Iso out of the I.  Up by twenty? Run the Iso.  Down by twenty (admittedly more likely with waifs like young me blocking)?  Run the Iso.  It’s easy to see why: the Iso has everyone pretty much blocking straight ahead, so it reduces screw-ups when there’s a lead to protect, and at least lets your team worry about getting their heads straight when things have gotten out of hand.

The Iso (and more general interior Lead plays) had to evolve in order to offset the play’s biggest shortcomings.  First, the Iso was vulnerable to slants and stunts because it didn’t put blockers in a position to consistently create favorable angles.  Second, the Iso created a relatively small hole for the running back, so if a linebacker was quick he could gum the play up either by jamming the fullback near the line or by slipping the center-guard combo block.  For this reason, the classic Iso is now mainly used as a change of pace or as a clock-killer at higher levels of play; if you watched the Ravens wrap-up the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, they broke out an Iso/Lead play when closing out both games.

Though better known for “student body right,” John McKay’s USC squads, which were coordinated by Don Coryell among others, might’ve been the first to figure out a way to keep lead plays like the Iso working even against eight-man fronts.  Coryell and McKay (both I-formation gurus) simply added elements of the draw play.  This twist combatted both of the traditional Iso’s weak points.  A deeper, delayed handoff meant the running back could read developing blocks at the line of scrimmage and run to daylight; the linemen knew this, so they could pass set and react to the defense, essentially letting the DTs and DEs go wherever they wanted to and take themselves out of the play.  Meanwhile, the linebackers had to respect the QB’s deep drop (and the backs’ slight hesitation) by maintaining their depth, which gave the fullback plenty of room to make his block.

The trick to making the play work was that both the fullback and the tailback read the defense.  The fullback went to wherever the onside defensive tackle had vacated to meet the linebacker, while the tailback read the entire front for creases and cutbacks; if it happened to be the middle that was open, he read his fullback’s block to determine which direction to cut after clearing the line of scrimmage.  It’s easy to see how these reads fed into the evolution of the formal zone run game.

Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese, both Coryell disciples, ran the play with regularity when they served as offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in the 90’s.  It might not be a stretch to say that Emmitt Smith earned his HoF credentials with two versions of this hybridized play called “Iso” and “Lead Draw.”  The Cowboys “Iso” was a direct descendant of the classic Isolation play, as it had the fullback draw a bead on an isolated middle ‘backer.

The Iso-Draw play, as described by the Dallas Cowboys in the 90's; the hatch marks on the TB's path indicate a deep handoff.

The fullback in this case was the 6’2 Daryl “Moose” Johnston, who routinely served as clean-up man for missed blocks on Iso plays.  He was such an effective blocker that it was often advantageous for linemen to miss blocks, because Johnston would pick up loose DTs and free the linemen to occupy the ‘backers, creating a de facto Wham play (back-on-lineman.)  Smith, meanwhile, was a savant at reading fronts, and could often cut plays to the backside by three or even four gaps for big gains.