EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The NFL is doing its best to prevent players from dangerously banging their heads into each other this season. But the result of their effort is going to be a lot of people banging their heads against a wall.
That's because not even the players are completely clear about what is and isn't a penalty under the NFL's new helmet rule - a rule that makes "lowering the head and initiating contact" with any part of an opponent's body, not just the head, a 15-yard penalty at least.
The Giants' players were briefed by an officiating crew on Thursday, and they've been shown videos and presentations by coaches, and some even watched the first NFL preseason game on Thursday night.
But the only thing they seem clear on with this rule is that it's not very clear at all.
"Not really," said Giants linebacker Kareem Martin. "They tried to give a little clarity on it, but it's all gray area for the most part. I feel like every officiating crew is going to have their interpretation of things."
The rule itself is actually pretty clear. Players can't lower their head and hit an opponent with it anywhere. Period. The problem, as Martin noted, is in the individual interpretation.
Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree is right when he said that for NFL defensive players "It's kind of tough for us to take our heads out of it," so it'll be up to the officials to determine what constitutes an illegal lowering of the head and illegal helmet contact.
In the first preseason game on Thursday night - the Hall of Fame game between the Bears and the Ravens - there were two "helmet rule" penalties called, and two "unnecessary roughness" calls that appeared to be at least related to the new helmet rule. Those two calls were generally panned and seemed to highlight the uncertainty and confusion.
But really, that's just the beginning. If history is any guide, the NFL's preseason will be a flag-fest as officials take this new rule for a test drive. Players will have trouble adjusting and some will try to see how far they can push the boundaries. Meanwhile, officials will feel pressure from the league to enforce the new rule as much as they can, and will likely make mistakes as they try to figure it out for themselves.
"I think what they've been told to do is just throw (flags)," former NFL referee and current NBC rules analyst Terry McAuley reportedly said during the broadcast Thursday night. "Just throw. That way they'll have a library of plays before (the regular-season opener in) Philadelphia so they'll have a better idea of what is a penalty."
Some players, though, fear the flag-fest will go on much longer than that.
"I think they'll calm down probably in like the second quarter of the NFL regular-season," said Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins. "So probably like between games four through eight they'll calm down. After that, everybody will adjust."
In the meantime, there will be an uproar from defensive players who feel like they're at a disadvantage, to coaches who'll be frustrated at the uneven interpretations, to fans who get tired of watching little yellow flags flying through the air, and yearn for the old days when football was even more violent than it is now.
The NFL is, of course, right to do what they can to make the game safer. The violence and big hits may be crowd-pleasers, but they're not worth the risk to players, especially now that we know the toll that unrestrained football can take on the body, especially the brain.
But the change is not likely to be smooth, even for those who truly understand what the league is trying to do.
"They're just trying to take away the missile-type hits," Martin said. "That's safer for everybody -- for the player delivering the hit and the player getting hit. You'll lower your head a little big just by human nature, but I think they're just trying to get rid of the guys just diving and charging. Hopefully it won't be too much of a big deal."
By this time next year, it probably won't be. The rule is simple and clear - far easier to understand than what constitutes pass interference or the NFL's much-boggled definition of a catch. Once the flags start flying and players can see what's not allowed, it will all become a lot clearer.
Until then, though, there figures to be a period of chaos and confusion - at least through the summer, and perhaps beyond.
"It's going to be like that early in the season," Jenkins said. "It's preseason and they're going to be looking for anything to call. Just let them do their job."
"We'll learn a lot this preseason as far as interpretation, because a lot of it is judgement calls on the officials," Martin added. "So we're going to play these games and watch other games and see how tight they're called and how they're enforcing it. All we can do is move forward from there and adjust how we play.
"I'm hoping it won't be a big adjustment and they won't be ticky-tack with it, but I guess we'll see."