The new NFL rule governing helmet contact both confounds and covers everyone. No one may initiate contact with the helmet, period. On either side of the ball. So, those who were once ruled to be the victims of a heinous foul now may be called the culprits.
What if you’re a particular Falcons running back, short in stature, long on aggression, known to play a little human demolition derby when carrying a football? One who twice last year missed playing time with concussions?
What’s going to happen the first time Devonta Freeman – all 5-foot-9 of him – is flagged for unnecessary roughness?
For one, Devonta Freeman is not going to be surprised.
“I definitely think I’m going to get (that call) a couple of times this year,” he said.
When Freeman returned last season from those head injuries, he defiantly declared that nothing was going to change about his head-long running style. Now that running backs who go low, who strike with their helmets in an effort to get a yard or two more may be penalized, he remains defiant. Like third-person defiant.
“It’s going to be one of those things it’s hard to do something about. You know Devonta Freeman. You know how Devonta Freeman runs. You know how Devonta Freeman practices. You know my mindset,” he said.
While admitting the idea behind the rule change was probably a good thing, Freeman was quick to add, “There’s only so much you can do about football and tackling and defenders and running the ball. I got to play low, that’s my advantage. That’s what makes me different, what makes me successful at what I do. Being low and having low center of gravity, that’s how I play.”
And he concluded: “That’s the NFL rule, not my rule.”
Just to properly set the scene, it is important to note that Freeman was smiling while saying all this. This does not appear to be an angry Dirty Bird in any form or fashion.
There are any number of useful adjectives that might attach themselves, like every color of sticky note, to Freeman these days. Even here during the drudgery of training camp.
Happy is one of them.
“For Free, he’s always happy,” his head coach, Dan Quinn, said.
“Just his presence here lightens everybody up,” fellow runner Tevin Coleman told the Associated Press.
Why shouldn’t he be happy?
Freeman is taking that question and running with it now: “What I did my whole life is I played football in the streets all day long, for free. Sometimes I didn’t have anything to eat. I love it, man.
“Why not embrace it? This (training camp) is supposed to be a hard time. This is supposed to be a moment where your body gets sore, your body gets tired, you get tired. Mentally you’re just done. I think what I’ve learned to do is say, alright, how can I make this fun?”
Healthy is another useful adjective.
That’s a big one.
“Healthy is the No. 1 thing,” Quinn said, citing the high energy he’s seen in camp. “It’s the violence and the cuts he can make. He’s short but he’s not small. The power he has in his lower body to break guys off is significant. Having him at his best is good for us.”
Last season, after signing his lucrative new contract, Freeman went through several injury spin cycles and the diminishing returns those entailed. He still accounted for 1,182 combined rushing and receiving yards. But that lagged behind the combined yardages of the previous two seasons (1,634 and 1,541).
He spent two weeks of the preseason and two weeks of the regular season in separate concussion protocols. A knee sprain further slowed him.
Not a season to bronze for posterity but also not one Freeman wants to flush.
“I didn’t flush it. That’s a stain. That’s a scar. It’s going to be there forever,” he said. “I remember that season because that was one of the toughest times in my life. I was in a dark place, but had to keep moving.”
And while, yes, stubborn seems to be a part of Freeman’s descriptive portfolio when talking about his running style, perhaps there is just a little room in there for being discreet, too.
Working with Falcons new running back coach Bernie Parmalee has been a hoot thus far, Freeman said. And one of the big takeaways from this still-new relationship has been one ever-recurring theme.
“We talk about taking unnecessary hits (or not taking them) all the time,” Freeman said, “trying to be an overall student of the game with every detail that football has to offer.”
“My goal is to take (that studious approach) and take advantage of that. And to understand that playbook like Matt Ryan understands that playbook, get on that level as a runner.”
At least Freeman will admit there is more than one way to be a heady player.
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