One of the inherent problems with the game of football is also one of its most exciting elements: physicality. When you put twenty-two athletes clothed with helmets, rib protectors, and shoulder pads on a field, things are going to be rough.
The game of football is loved partially because of the excitement that comes as a result of its highly-physical nature. If you’ve ever attended a game of football at any level, you’ve undoubtedly heard loud cheers in response to stiff-arms and hard hits.
An unfortunate byproduct of football’s physicality is the toll it takes on players’ bodies. Not only are the often-discussed head and neck injuries problems—brutal injuries to players’ knees, upper body, and many other body parts are major problems as well.
Still, head injuries present the biggest risk to the game of football as a whole. They have been shown to, in some cases, have lasting effects on the lives of players.
While everyone agrees that head injuries in the game of football are massive problems, there is a great deal of disagreement as to how the problem should be helped. Earlier in the offseason, the NFL competition committee enacted a controversial rule change in an effort to mitigate the issue.
Whereas in previous years only “defenseless” players were protected from blows to the head and neck area, the new rule protects everyone from that kind of contact. Per NFL public relations staff member Brian McCarthy, the new rule states, “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”
Playing Rule Article 8: It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. The player may be disqualified. Applies to any player anywhere on the field. The player may be disqualified.
— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) March 27, 2018
A rule like this that punishes helmet to helmet contact is good in theory, but it could ultimately have a negative effect on the game of NFL football as a whole. While the rule really affects every single position on the field, the greatest effect will be felt by safeties.
Most of the controversial hits that occur in the NFL today come from safeties. They often find themselves in awkward positions when it comes to contact in the head and neck area, and can often be unfairly labeled as “dirty” players.
The NFL’s new targeting rule only exacerbates that awkwardness. Even if it prevents head injuries, it could incite confusion across the board.
Tennessee Titans safety Johnathan Cyprien is no stranger to the awkwardness involved with trying to avoid hitting opponents in the head and neck area. In the Titans’ Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs back in January, Cyprien hit tight-end Travis Kelce in the head as he was going to the ground, despite trying to avoid the dangerous contact. Kelce suffered a concussion.
Shortly after the rule addition was announced by the NFL, Cyprien took to Twitter to express his frustration, criticizing it for being “another rule made up by people who never played the game.”
A few weeks ago, I caught up with Cyprien to take a deeper dive into his thoughts on the “targeting” situation, in addition to discussing his excitement for playing in such a talented secondary in 2018.
Another rule made up by people who never played the game. Maybe I need more clarification on this new targeting rule, or maybe the NFL needs clarification on the game. 🤷🏾♂️
— Johnathan Cyprien (@cyp) March 30, 2018
The hit that Cyprien laid on Pro Bowler Travis Kelce was another straw atop the many others that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Kelce was knocked out for the rest of the game with a concussion, arguably a massive reason why the Titans were able to come back and defeat the Chiefs.
That situation is a prime example of the nature of head injuries in the game of football. Sure it’s terrible that Kelce suffered a head injury, but the situation was mostly unavoidable.
Under the old rule, Cyprien’s hit was legal. With the new rule in place, such a hit would likely be flagged, unfairly, for being unnecessarily rough. When I asked him about his hit on Kelce, Cyprien expressed his frustration with unavoidable plays resulting in penalties.
“It was a guy who was just running, it’s not like I hit someone who didn’t do a football move. That’s just me running and hitting. Shoot, when we made contact we were like two yards off the ground. Where else do you hit a guy when you’re that low?
It’s funny too because, with that hit, I felt like I leaned in with my shoulder. But if you look back on the film, my helmet grazed him as well—and that was me trying to lean in with my shoulder. There’s just some stuff you can’t help.”
The hardest part of introducing a new rule on the NFL’s end of things is having to teach that rule to players. If the new rule is not taught in a way that’s efficient and easy to understand, things quickly become confusing.
With a rule as judgment-based as the new targeting rule, the league has a massive task on its hand in effectively helping players understand what’s prohibited and what isn’t. This is precisely why sometimes change is inherently bad when it comes to NFL rules.
Cyprien certainly feels that, in addition to being a bit unfair to defensive backs, the new rule will make the overall game of football murkier and less enjoyable.
“I’m honestly waiting until the officials actually come into our building during camp and really explain this. Overall, I think you can only do so much when it comes to football. At the end of the day, it’s hard-hitting, it’s running fast, it’s making plays.
I think the more change you put on us, the less our game becomes enjoyable. It tries to make you think twice. But honestly, if I want to keep playing at the level that I’ve played for years, I’m going to just keep doing my thing.”
Especially in recent years, the Titans have often been the victim of poor (and at times ludicrous) officiating.
From the phantom pass interference call on Andre Johnson in 2016 that ultimately cost the team a win against the Raiders, to the ten-yard forward pass that officials deemed a fumble against Miami last season, the Titans find themselves on the wrong end of crucial calls on a regular basis.
While none of the calls really directly affected the Titans, their Wild Card victory against the Kansas City Chiefs was consistently poorly officiated. Referee Jeff Triplette, who has since retired, seemed pretty confused just about every time a situation necessitated a decision from him.
The new targeting rule will do nothing but make such situations more likely. Officials are already forced into a number of controversial judgment calls, and adding a new judgment rule will only make the issue worse.
“The referees have a hard enough job,” said Cyprien regarding the situation. “But for them to put something like this on them to pretty much judge whether a guy got hit with someone’s helmet or not, it was hard before and I think it’s going to be even harder now.
There’s only so much the human eye can catch. We’ve been on our officials with enough rules as far as officiating games incorrectly last season. I just think this is a setup for them to go through a worse year this year than they did last.”
Despite the rule change, Cyprien and his teammates are exceedingly excited for the 2018 campaign. For the first time in a while, the Titans will enter the season with a near-elite level secondary.
Joining Cyprien in the defensive backfield will be cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and All-Pro Malcolm Butler, who was recently acquired in free agency. He’ll also be joined by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who led the NFL in interceptions last season.
During the offseason, the Titans’ defensive backs have spent a good deal of time together. In an effort to increase cohesiveness and to stay fit during the offseason, they have participated in numerous group workouts in the Nashville area.
— Kayla Anderson (@KaylaAndersonTV) March 26, 2018
Not only will these workouts increase on-field success in multiple ways, but Cyprien says it has increased the group’s excitement for next season.
“When you can have faith in lockdown corners like the ones we have, there are definitely things you can do playing me and Kevin [Byard]’s position that can put us in position to make more plays. We know what to expect from each other. We see each-other sweat, work hard, and we see everyone push themselves individually.”
After years of mediocrity and even horror in the defensive backfield, the Titans have finally found five guys that give them an extraordinary opportunity for success. Not only do they have talented players, but they have players who are good fits in Mike Vrabel’s defense.
Cyprien’s first season with the Titans was a bit of a disappointment—he missed part or all of seven games due to a hamstring injury. If he is able to stay healthy, his elite run-stopping ability, along with the exceptional talent around him, should propel him to a very good second season in a Titans uniform.
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Cover image via USA Today.