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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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Must-see sports photos of the week

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The most interesting sports shots from around the globe this week include a 120-kilometer race through the Peruvian desert, NASCAR stock cars spinning donuts in Nashville, Tenn., and a gold-medal-winning takedown in the Philippines.

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After 57 days and one win, Bengals superfan comes down from roof

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MILAN, Ind. — Chrissy Lanham stood next to a cardboard cutout of her husband as the final seconds ticked off the clock inside Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.

The flesh-and-bone version of Jeff Lanham was watching roughly 45 miles west in the makeshift tent atop the couple’s restaurant and bar in Milan, Indiana. After two months, he was ready to get off the roof.

An offhand comment about living above the Lanhams’ Hog Rock Cafe until the Cincinnati Bengals won a game turned into a 57-day period that unexpectedly transformed Lanham into his town’s biggest celebrity since the basketball team that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”

When the Bengals finally picked up a win by beating the New York Jets in Week 13 to improve to 1-11, everyone around Chrissy celebrated with “Cardboard Jeff” while the real person was surrounded by screams and flying beer at the bar in southeastern Indiana.

A few drinks, a tree-trimming truck and belief in one of the worst teams in the NFL put Lanham on the roof of his own restaurant. Resolve kept him there.

“I didn’t do it, really, for anything,” said Lanham, 42. “I just made a comment and owned up to a comment and did it.”

Back in 1991, Dennis “Wildman” Walker spent 61 days on a Cincinnati billboard under similar circumstances, a feat that inspired Lanham’s comments.

Cincinnati was 0-4 when Lanham said he would live on the roof until the Bengals won. It was hours before the Bengals hosted the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL’s worst team last season. Jeff and Chrissy watched from the usual spot in the stadium as Arizona won 26-23 on a last-second field goal. Cincinnati started its course toward the NFL cellar, with six consecutive losses to come.

When they drove back to the Hog Rock in their black and orange party bus, Lanham knew where he had to go. A friend grabbed a tent; someone else fetched their tree-trimming truck; and Lanham headed to the roof on a rainy night. Once he woke up the next morning, he realized he might be stuck up there for a while. He moved down a story to the lower portion of the roof so he wouldn’t have to use an extension ladder to climb down to the bathroom and shower.

Decades earlier, people actually paid to live in the building. Back then, it was called the Railroad Inn, a reference to the train tracks that are less than 100 feet from the entrance. But when he and Chrissy started the restaurant, Milan (pronounced MY-lan) was vastly different.

Phyllis Coe, 72, said she bought the building at a sheriff’s auction after the previous owner let the building rot. She charged the Lanhams $500 rent. Lanham, who hadn’t worked for a year after a leg injury forced him to stop working in a mill, poured all of his money into fixing the place up.

“You can’t discount the kid,” Coe said.

When Lanham received international media attention for his stay on the roof, it was the biggest thing to happen to Milan since the high school’s boys basketball team won the Indiana state title in 1954 against Muncie Central, which inspired the 1986 film “Hoosiers.”

Lanham said he used his growing media exposure to remind people about the ’54 champions. He also used his brief window of stardom to raise money for the medical costs of a friend’s daughter who was born with spina bifida. He came down for roughly 12 hours during a benefit event.

During his time on the roof, he held 50/50 raffles during Bengals games and sold $5 raffle tickets for people to eat in a tent that was donated by a friend’s company. He donated most of the things he received, including a pallet of soup from Campbell’s.

He had heaters and plenty of people to keep him company, but it was still tough.

Jeff and Chrissy watched Netflix simultaneously in different places, calling to start shows at the same time and see whether they liked them. She, along with others, brought laundry and food up to his tent, including meals from Skyline Chili topped with habanero cheese. They put up another tent and had Thanksgiving up there.

After nearly two months, he came home. The Bengals easily trounced the Jets, 22-6 on Sunday, for their first win of the season. People near Chrissy at the stadium gave Jeff’s cardboard cutout high-fives, while the watch party back in Milan erupted when the game ended. By the time Chrissy arrived home, Jeff was celebrating with everyone at Hog Rock. They stayed until 11:30 that night.

“Jeff was ready to come home,” Chrissy said.

After the victory, Bengals running back Joe Mixon said he’d like to give Lanham something for staying up there that long. Lanham said that’s not necessary.

“I can’t say I want something from somebody because I didn’t do it for that,” he said.

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Source — Patriots re-signing veteran kicker Nick Folk

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The New England Patriots will be re-signing kicker Nick Folk, a league source confirmed to ESPN.

The move, which was first reported by NFL Network, was expected after the Patriots waived Kai Forbath on Monday and were left with no kickers on the roster.

Forbath was signed to replace Folk, who had an appendectomy last week. In Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans, Forbath went 1-for-2 on extra points and made a 23-yarder on his only field goal attempt.

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