SANTA CLARA -- Perhaps you noticed. The other night when 49ers rookie safety Eric Reid decided to lower the boom on Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green in an exhibition game, Reid did so with a more careful boom. Not kinder and gentler. Just more careful.
Reid made certain not to lead with his head -- or target Green's head. Instead, Reid planted his left shoulder solidly into Green's body and knocked him out of bounds with force. But not with cataleptic, concussion-guaranteed force.
So the new NFL is apparently upon us. This season, rules changes have been instituted in an attempt to keep players from colliding themselves into oblivion. Vicious, borderline contact will be penalized more often. The changes were negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) during the last labor talks.
We all know why it's happened. The rules changes were at least partially -- perhaps largely -- a product of lawsuits filed by former players who say they sustained brain damage during their time in the league. The NFL wants to show the world it isn't sanctioning further carnage. Of course, as an economic plus, the new rules should also keep more of today's players (and their salaries) healthy and on the field.
But it's a funny thing. Many current NFL players seem to think the rules have gone too far. Several have squawked about it publicly. You have to respect the guys who do this for a living. So Monday morning at 49ers training camp, I asked linebacker NaVorro Bowman a question:
Do the rules changes make football a better game?
Bowman didn't blow off the question. Neither did he try to finesse it or give a snappy one-line insult. Bowman gave a thoughtful, reasoned reply. And although it wasn't a direct answer to my question, it told you everything about how Bowman feels.
"I mean, there's no CBA when you're growing up, learning about football," Bowman said. "You pretty much learn how to hit. Coaches at a young age, they try to figure out if you have that dog in you, if you have that anger in you. I don't think from that level to this level, they're on the same page. But you're going to have to get there."
In other words, this is going to be a big adjustment, especially for players coming into the NFL from colleges where they have been rewarded for being the most vicious hitters on their teams -- and where the collision rules are still more lenient in some respects.
"When you're young, man, you're just trying to find yourself," Bowman said, "and that tends to carry over in this league. That's the football we've been used to playing. It's just hard-nosed football, hitting, wrapping, getting a man down any way that we can. And I don't know why the NFL don't want us to play like that no more. Safety is the answer, I know. But football is a contact sport."
Illegal hits to the skull should be the easiest ones to enforce. But the most controversial rule, once the flags start flying in the regular season, is likely to be the so-called "helmet crown" rule for running backs. Here's how it works: Ball carriers are no longer permitted to lower their heads and make contact with the crown of their helmets -- except for inside an imaginary "box" that stretches from tackle to tackle and extends downfield 3 yards past the line of scrimmage.
If a running back outside that "box" lowers his head and uses his helmet to initiate contact with a tackler, the runner will be assessed a 15-yard penalty. Fines are also possible.
"The new rule is kind of head-boggling." Bowman said, sympathizing with the runners. "Because on the defensive side, you want to protect yourself at the same time. So I'm not understanding (how) the running back can't lower his head outside the box. That tends to happen when you're trying to get a first down or something like that.
"So it's going to be a rule that's going to have to be played with ... But if we want to play in this league, we've got to abide by the rules. The referees have a tough job. So us, as players, just have to ... figure out a way to fit our game into the new way of playing in the NFL."
Will the behavior modification be quick?
"What's going to make you adjust quickly," Bowman said, "is those fines that you receive in the mail. That tends to work. Any time money is getting taken out of your pocket, you find a way to correct it."
Of course, some players might just accept the fines as the cost of doing business. Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte tweeted the other day that he was "calling bank now to set up my lowering-the-boom fund." And in the wake of Reid's big-bang tackling during last week's preseason game, the rookie told reporters that some of his 49ers teammates were teasing him and saying he should have hit even harder.
This is going to be interesting. Football will always be a contact game. But in the future, will the game be able to protect itself from its own worst instincts? If that's too esoteric of an issue for you to ponder, just relax and get used to the less bloodthirsty hits. Trust me. They'll still be brutal enough.