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.
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.
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.