Posted by: marcmwm | October 3, 2008

Helmet-to-helmet is a little fuzzy . . .

Let me just say up front, I’ve never covered any player who’s had a serious injury and I hope I never do.

October 02. 2008 10:44PM

Helmet-to-helmet calls make confusing impact

By Marc Morehouse

(Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa’s Karl Klug (left) tries to tackle Tyrell Sutton of Northwestern during the third quarter of Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Helmet-to-helmet contact has been a point of emphasis for college football officials this season.

IOWA CITY — Safety is an emphasis for college football officials this season. That’s a great concept, laudable in every way imaginable. The problem is this: Football isn’t built for safety.

Helmet-to-helmet penalties have played a role in two Iowa games this season. Iowa benefited from a helmet-to-helmet personal foul call when Iowa State defensive back Leonard Johnson smacked tight end Tony Moeaki after a short pass Sept. 13. The 15 yards moved Iowa to Iowa State’s 31 and the drive ended up as six points.

Last week against Northwestern, Iowa defensive backs Shaun Prater and Bradley Fletcher tackled Rasheed Ward after a 9-yard gain on a third-and-10 play. Fletcher was called for helmet-to-helmet contact, giving NU a first-and-goal at Iowa’s 5. The drive turned into the winning points.

One helmet shot not called might have shaped the game even more. Iowa running back Shonn Greene got hung up at the line of scrimmage early in the fourth quarter. Northwestern safety Brad Phillips cleaned up, with a shot on Greene’s helmet. Greene was knocked out of the game and the fumble set up Northwestern’s winning drive.

“That’s one where probably (you) need to go back and look at,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.

During Big Ten media days in August, reporters were shown an officials’ emphasis video. Above-the-shoulder tackles and tackles involving the crown of the helmet were singled out for 15-yard penalties.

The highlight used to emphasize this was a hit Michigan State’s Nehemiah Warrick put on Wisconsin receiver Kyle Jefferson last season in Madison, Wis. Warrick led with his head and no penalty was called. According to a story in The Capital Times, UW radio play-by-play announcer Matt Lepay called Big Ten coordinator of officials David Parry at halftime, and Parry said the play should have been a 15-yard penalty.

The hit on Moeaki was a penalty. The hit on Ward was a penalty. The hit on Greene wasn’t. The hit on Jefferson wasn’t.

The rule seems to have an element of judgment.

“I think it’s really ambiguous right now,” Ferentz said. “We’ve had them go against us and one for us. Just one person’s opinion, because of the emphasis, I’m not sure we’re not over-officiating that particular play.

“I’m not faulting anyone. I just think that’s the fallout of where we’re at right now.”

The NCAA rules committee refined the rules this year regarding the use of the helmet as a weapon and targeting defenseless players.

The rule says: “It is now a foul when a player targets an opponent and initiates contact with the crown (top) of the helmet.

This rule is intended primarily for the safety of the player who initiates the contact. It is also a foul if a player targets a defenseless opponent and initiates contact above the shoulders.”

Hits on defenseless players were targeted in the emphasis video.

“I guess when I think of helmet-to-helmet, I think of spearing, something where you’re really putting someone in danger, trying to intentionally put someone in danger,” Ferentz said. “Or a flagrant hit, I’ve seen a couple this year that have been called.”

These are bang-bang, heat-of-the-moment plays. They’re also not reviewable. What the official sees, he calls or he doesn’t.

“I think it’s tough coaching tackling right now,” Ferentz said. “I think it’s tough to officiate tackling. That’s just my observation.”

Violence is an inherent part of the game. Ferentz doesn’t think it’s more violent now than it’s ever been.

“In general terms, yeah, athletes are bigger, stronger, faster than they have probably ever been, so the impacts can be (more violent),” Ferentz said. “But it’s always been a pretty violent game. It’s a collision sport.”

Even though it doesn’t look like it, safety is on the players’ minds. They’re playing in a game, not fighting in some battle.

“Anytime you see a player go down, whether it’s our team or the other team, you hope it’s not anything serious,” Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi said.

“You know, we’re trying to play a ballgame here. We’re not trying to hurt people. Anytime you see that, it’s never good. We’re just trying to play football.”

If you watch a game closely enough, you wonder how helmet-to-helmet isn’t called every down. Linemen begin every play in a three-point stance.

By nature, the head is front and center while firing out. The head is a point of emphasis.

Iowa offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga signed up for this. He knows the helmet-to-helmet is a tough call. He thinks officials want to keep players safe and keep the game clean.

But he’s out there playing the game.

His head and the helmet that protects it are tools of this game.

“You’ve got a helmet on, you use it,” he said.



  1. I think helmet to helmet contact is evident when an official sees it – as in last nights game when Clark hit MaGahee – driving his helmet into MaGahee’s helmet in the last quarter of the Steelers Ravens Game.

    Helmet to helmet is not when an offensive lineman fire blocks a defensive lineman or a linebacker, although the crown of the helmet should not be used as a weapon by offensive linemen either. Helmet to helmet happens in the open field at full speed where the old physics equation of mass x velocity = force applies thoroughly. And diet and strength conditioning cause players of today to be bigger and stronger than their counterparts of the past.

    Whether blocking or tackling, players should be trained by coaches at all levels of competition to hit face into the chest, not with the crown of their helmets.

    To some extent, helmet to helmet contact is an attitude. To wit, read Sporting News Pro Football 2009 – Page 14 where Rodney Harrison of the Patriots is compared to Tatum, Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater who are described as “Assasins”.
    Former Steelers’ Coach Chuck Knoll – not exactly a panty-waist himself – said that Tatum, then with Oakland, brought a “criminal element” to the NFL because of his hitting techniques. Steve Feldman, Harrison’s “longtime agent” according to this article is quoted as follows: “His first order of business is to hit you in the mouth, and then physically and mentally destroy you”. That is pretty tough talk, particularly from someone who doesn’t suit up on Sundays.

    No – I think the NFL better get helmet to helmet under control. It already has killed Daryl Stingley
    and the technique translates to use by college and high school – even youth football players who emulate the pros. This dangerous tackling technique will maim and kill more if players using it are not ejected from the game and repeat offenders prohibited from playing the game.

  2. That wasn’t helmet to helmet last night. Watch the tape and his right shoulder is clearly leading his body in to McGahee, not even close really.

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