The NFL will be more aggressive in suspending players next season for illegal hits, and it also could make changes to instant replay and kickoffs. Ray Anderson, the league's chief disciplinarian, said repeat offenders or players committing flagrant illegal hits will have a much greater chance of being suspended during the 2011 season.
No suspensions were handed down in 2010 even after the NFL's crackdown on such hits, in part because "we were operating under the principle unless you have given sufficient advance notice of what the results could be, you need to be more lenient."
The league's competition committee will propose at next week's owners meetings moving the kickoff up to the 35 and bringing a touchback out to the 25. It also will propose making all scoring plays reviewable by the replay official.
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton serves on the NFL Coaches' Subcommittee, which makes recommendations to the Competition Committee. The group consists of current and former NFL head coaches.
NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay and NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson Conference Call March 16, 2011
Ray Anderson: Our Competition Committee meetings, as you know, started in Indianapolis and continued here in Naples, FL for seven days. It seems like forever. Certainly a big focus of both of those meetings was player safety. I'll just say a few words on the process of our discipline and then turn it over to Rich to review some of the proposed advancement to player safety rules and other focuses that we've had in these meetings. With regard to the discipline process per se, we discussed that subject at length with the committee with regard to our safety rules enforcement and the emphasis and the upgrades that we had during the 2010 season.
The Competition Committee was fully supportive of the way discipline was handled, but we always know that there are ways to improve and we plan to do that with more communication in advance to players, clubs and coaches with regard to what is expected. But the committee certainly fully supported the aggressive protection of defenseless players and aggressive protection against unnecessary hits to the head, neck area, and illegal helmet hits. We understand that we need to continue in terms of disciplining to discourage repeat offenders and flagrant violators and hold not just players but coaches and clubs accountable for playing to and coaching to the rules. There will be strong support in the 2011 season for making sure that players understand that, when warranted, suspensions will be an effective discipline for us. We don't want to go there, but if we must we're prepared to do that because these rules are meant to protect everybody on the field and all are accountable to those player safety rules. So discipline, and aggressive discipline, for these player safety rules and violations, particularly the ones that we all know can be devastating, will be an emphasis in 2011 and we'll be able to answer your questions about more specifically what that might entail at the end of the session, but there's a clear acknowledgment that we need to be aggressive in disciplining and we will give very clear advance notice to all players and all clubs as to what that could potentially entail.
With that, I'll turn it over to Rich McKay, our chairman.
: Let me go back a little bit and just go through our Competition Committee process. For those of you that have been on this call before I know you've probably heard it before, but I do want to go through it. We survey all the clubs, all the coaches, all the general managers to do a couple of things: number one, to review what went on in 2010, to review the changes that we implemented in 2010 and to get their feedback on the same, and also to look at any proposals they may have -- any ideas they may have -- with respect to 2011. We did that again this year.
We then go to Indianapolis where we have a session with the players. We meet three days as a committee. We have a session with the players, an afternoon session. We had a long session with the Coaches Subcommittee - Coach Madden's subcommittee. We get all their feedback on the rules that we're talking about proposing. This year much of the focus was on the safety rules. Then as both Greg and Ray said we go to Naples and we spend seven days. In Naples what we do is we go through every suggestion brought up by clubs, fans, media, the Coaches Subcommittee, and we try to digest the players' feedback that we got in Indianapolis and how we should incorporate that into proposals. This year, I would say that we have probably the smallest number of playing rule proposals I remember in a long time. There are only five playing rule proposals and in reality three major proposals, if you will. We have no by-law proposals and we have a number of positions and clarifications. I'll go through the major playing rule proposals now and I'll let you ask questions when we get to the end of it.
Playing rule proposal number one will be basically a rewrite of the defenseless player rule. We've rewritten it a couple of times but this year what we've done is we've gone back and given it its own article within Unnecessary Roughness. It will now be Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9. We'll try to expand one of the protections which is to the defenseless receiver himself, which is one of the eight categories of defenseless players. We'll try to expand that protection until the receiver can either protect himself or clearly becomes a runner. We're just trying to expand that window to protect that player from either getting hit in the head or getting hit by the head. Those are the two protections you basically have as a defenseless player. So we're definitely expanding the envelope from which that player can have protection.
We're also going to standardize the protection for all eight categories of the defenseless player. Those eight categories include
» the quarterback or the player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;
» the receiver attempting to catch a pass, which includes the receiver who hasn't completed a catch or had time to protect himself;
» number three is a runner who's already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;
» number four is a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;
» number five is a player on the ground at the end of a play;
» number six is a kicker or punter during the kick or during the return;
» number seven is quarterback at any time after a change of possession;
» and number eight is a player who receives a blindside block. So those are the eight categories of defenseless players. We just want to be sure that we write the rules very clearly and that all eight of those categories have the exact same protection.
We also, within that rule, will add a category that will prohibit illegal launching, which will prohibit people from leaving their feet, springing forward and upward, and delivering a blow with any part of his helmet or facemask. That will certainly be a new category, if you will, of an illegal tactic. So that would be playing rule proposal number one.
Playing rule proposal number two will be a modification of the kickoff. The injury rate on the kickoff remains a real concern for us and for the players and for the Coaches Subcommittee, and so we will propose what I think would be a pretty major change to the play itself. The changes would include moving the kickoff line back to the 35 yard line from the 30; not allowing any member of the kickoff team other than the kicker to line up more than five yards from the kickoff line, meaning they would have to line up from the 30 yard line on a normal kickoff; moving the touchback on the kickoff from the 20 to the 25; and we would also make the kickoff out of bounds penalty 25 yards from the kickoff line instead of 30, therefore the kickoff would still end up at the same place, i.e. the 40 yard line; we would also propose elimination of all forms of the wedge block, including the two-man wedge. So there's really five parts, if you will, to that change, and it's a pretty major change to the kickoff play itself.
Rule proposal number three is a proposal to modify instant replay. We would propose that we modify instant replay in two ways. Number one is you have all scoring plays -- that includes any form of scoring, not a play that is ruled no score but a play that is ruled a score, and that would be field goals to the extent they're reviewable, that would be safeties, that would be touchdowns -- and we would have those plays confirmed upstairs by the replay official as we do in the last two minutes of both halves and overtime. So the coaches would not have the challenge in that instance. They wouldn't need to challenge. All those plays would be confirmed. If the replay official decides that play should be reviewed then the referee would continue to have the supervision of review. We would also propose in conjunction with that change the elimination of the third challenge. It hasn't been used very much at all in the last four years and we felt that we were taking so many plays away from the coaches and not putting them in the position of needing to challenge that we'd make that revision.
So those were our three major playing rule proposals. We had a number of positions and clarifications that are in the book and that we'll share with you when we get to the Annual Meeting. I'm happy to discuss some if you've got questions. I've read already some discussions about catch-no catch and so forth and I'm happy to discuss those. I'd also say that from a Competition Committee standpoint over the last two to two-and-a-half years we've spent a lot of time reviewing and making recommendations to the negotiating team with respect to offseason training camp rules and regular season practice rules, and all of those were brought up in the health and safety discussions that we had in our negotiations in Washington, D.C. with the NFLPA, and I'd be happy to take questions with respect to those if you have any.
I would say this, too -- the one thing I do want to say about the game itself is the game is in pretty good stead. That's why the focus of this year is mainly player safety. It always is player safety but we don't have a lot of rules changes because, quite frankly, the game is in pretty good stead. This year we had 44.07 points per game. It's the eighth highest of all time. We ended up at 672 yards per game, which is the highest of all time. And we ended up with a stat that we liked a lot which is that 25.4 percent of all games were decided by three or fewer points, which is the highest number of such games since 1999. So margin of victory is an important stat and it was in good stead this year.
On the catch-no catch issue:
RM: We spent an awful lot of time on catch-no catch. It's not the first time that we've spent a lot of time on it. We seem to do it a lot. Let me give you a couple of things that we started at. We started in Indianapolis going through it with the committee itself and just watching the plays and asking is that a catch or not a catch - let's go back through the rules. We came out with the fact that we all see an inherent conflict between what goes on with respect to the scrutiny provided by replay or slow motion and what goes on in live action. I think all of us came out at a point that we have to make sure that we write the rules for what is officiated on the field at full speed in live action, and not what gets looked at in super slow motion. I think what will come out and what will be written in our report is that we'll confirm the rule that's really been there for more than 70 years, which basically says there are three elements to a catch: number one, you've got to secure control of the ball in your hands; number two, you've got to maintain that control when you have two feet down or any body part other than your hands; and number three, which will be the clarification that we'll add to the book, we'll say you must control the ball long enough after A and B, meaning you've caught it cleanly and you've got two feet down or a body part, and after those two elements then you've got to maintain control long enough, and we're going to use the language we've had in the book for a long time, in which you would have the ability to perform any act common to the game. It doesn't mean you have to perform the act, but it's an element of time and you've got to write it in such a way where people understand that it's not just bang-bang and that's a catch.
So in our mind, and I think in the coaches subcommittee's mind when we went back and watched the tape with them, if you asked me the simple question of would Calvin Johnson be a catch in 2011, the answer in our minds would be no. You still wouldn't have those three elements having been maintained, especially because in his act he is going to the ground in the act of catching a pass, and the way the language will be written this year to make sure that people understand it, it will say if the player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass with or without contact by an opponent, he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. So that's a lot of verbiage, but that's kind of how we look at it. There are three elements to the catch and there's the element of if you're going to the ground you're going to have to maintain it throughout the process of contacting the ground. So we looked at I can't tell you how many plays that probably go back over the span of three or four years just to make sure we're consistent, and the one thing we've come away with is you have to put some responsibility on the receiver and that responsibility is maintaining possession throughout contacting the ground, because otherwise you're going to have a real issue with respect to how replay conflicts with live action officiating. We've got a long part of our report that will be written up that deals with those two issues, so maybe I didn't explain it as clearly as I could but I think it'll be written in the report.
Is maintaining control of the ball throughout the process the salient part of the rule?
RM: It is when it goes to the issue of going to the ground. It very much is.
On moving kickoff line and if it includes overtime:
RM: [It does apply]. I do not think it has much affect on overtime. The one thing with the kickoff proposal is there are really five moving parts to that proposal, and the idea was to change the play but don't disadvantage either side, try to even out the effect to both the kicking team and the receiving team. One of the major points is that the touchback gets moved to the 25. Today, the average start line is about the 27, maybe 27.6 or 27.7, and so what we are saying is if you do have the ability to create a touchback, you are not gaining any great advantage by putting them back at the 20. We are moving it to the 25. We think that there is a balance for the return team in the sense that we are moving the people that cover the kicks, they are moving up almost 15 yards from where they start. So instead of getting that running start they once had, they won't have that ability. They will only be able to get a five yard running start instead of a 15 yard running start. We want to see how it plays itself out. We can't really tell you with great certainty where the average start line will be, but we think it will be closer to what it has been historically than you think the change might bring.
On the types of injuries on kickoff returns that have shown up:
RM:Both concussions and major injuries. Both are there in the play, and we feel both need addressing. We watched a lot of film and it is a play that we just think needs modification.
On if committee has looked at college system where booth official has some power over making a play reviewable:
I would say the answer to that is yes, we have talked about it. I do not think there is enough sentiment to say that we would change from referee control as far as doing the reviews themselves. But there has been talk of looking at the college system downstream. Our system works pretty well, it is just in our mind we do put a lot of stress on the coaches because of the fact that they deal on the road with different video boards that tend to not always show the review. We just felt like on scoring plays, on major plays, why not use the same process we use in the last two minutes and relieve them of that responsibility. We want to see what the effect is. We certainly do not want to slow down the game, and I don't think any of us ever see us going back to a system that we had where every play was reviewable based on the decision of the guy upstairs. But this is a step where we think we are benefitting the coaches and potentially making sure that on the biggest plays of the game, we have the opportunity to confirm all of them.
On where the line is drawn and what constitutes a major play such as a 40-yard pass interference call:RM:
That is a good question, but those are two different categories there. Number one, on big plays in the game, we still have the challenge system, and that has worked pretty well for us. We don't necessarily want to go away from the challenge system, because in that system, the coach gets to decide for himself what the major play is. So that is not something we necessarily want to go away from. Now on other plays that are penalties. We have never as a league, and I would say our surveys always say the same thing -- we have never been in the business of wanting to put those in the category of reviewable plays. And neither does college, because the thought has always been that you are substituting one person's judgment with another person's judgment, and that is problematic in our mind.
Greg Aiello: On the schedule, the plan is to release it as we normally do in mid-April. The specific date of the announcement has not been set, but we plan to do what we normally do in mid-April on the schedule.
RM:With respect to reseeding, it was something we talked about, it was something we put in the survey; it is something that we feel like membership did not have an appetite for right now. It is a topic that I am sure we will continue to discuss downstream, but not something there will be any proposal about this year.
On if there was less or more support for the reseeding idea this year:
RM: I felt like when you looked at our survey results, you almost saw less support. So it was not something that we felt like was a change number one that we could propose and number two, get passed.
On if preseason schedule will be released in the last week of March:
GA: I don't know what the status is on the release of that, but my assumption is that yes, we will do what we normally do on the schedule, but I will check with Howard Katz.
On if there is any discussion of postseason overtime system moving to the regular season:
RM:I really don't anticipate any discussion of that. Our feeling here is that we wanted to do kind of what we have done, which is put it into the postseason where the consequences are a little more severe and then see it operate a little bit, which we did not this year. I don't think there is any rush. There are some members of the committee that wanted to talk about proposing it this year, but I think our overall feeling was let's wait a year or two before we propose the change, and let's see where that leads us. Let's see some games played under that new rule.
On pushback from players on illegal hits and discussions that went on with players for this season:
RA:As you know, when we have our meeting in Indianapolis, one of our sessions includes the players, and certainly we discussed the discipline process. Our emphasis in aggressively enforcing the rules we have, there remains some pushback on the players' part with regard to our process, what we have been charged with and what we have said is that we will be more communicative in advance with regard to what the expectations should be. But we made it very clear, and the Competition Committee is also very supportive of the notion that they need to understand that we are not relenting on this and that again in 2011, if there are repeat offenders or flagrant violators, we are going to hold them aggressively accountable, even if it means suspension -- because some folks hold the view that suspension is the real messenger in terms of seriousness of enforcement. So we hope we don't get there, but everyone is going to be on notice. If we have some of the hits that we had this year, and particularly if it is a repeat offender, that person, that club, and those coaches should know that having that person sit out for a game or multiple games in certain circumstances is very much on the table.
On offseason practices and discussions with players:RM:
With respect to the issue of hitting in practice and in training camp, including offseason, including training camp, including regular season, as a committee we made a number of recommendations to our negotiating group over the last two years with respect to revisions and adjustments that we thought would serve in the best interest of the players and would be absolutely fine for getting prepared to play games. A lot of those, because I was involved in those discussions and negotiations [that] occurred with the players, and I really felt like we made some pretty good progress with respect to that in all aspects, with respect to the offseason, with respect to training camp, and with respect to regular season. Not sure we got to the end result on any of them, but I do think that we made good progress. I think they realize how important we as a league view it. I do think there is something we can do there.
On why no suspensions occurred in 2010 when it was part of the rule emphasis and on a summary of the new kickoff proposal:RA:
Very frankly, there were instances where we had a lot of discussion about whether suspension would have been the more effective discipline, but we also were governing and operating under the governance principle that unless you have given sufficient advanced notice of what the results could be, fairness dictated that we would be a little more lenient. But now that the notice has been given, I think players, coaches and clubs are very aware of what the emphasis is; that going forward we won't have that hesitation to suspend. Again, no desire to take anybody off the field, but if you have repeat offenders and flagrant violators, everyone will be very clearly on notice now that suspension is a viable disciplinary option for us, and we will exercise it in 2011 without the hesitation very frankly that we had in 2010, because this is not an area we can relent on, this player safety, particularly when it comes to illegal hits to the head and neck area and illegal use of the helmet.
RM: On the kickoff, let me explain it using a couple of numbers. The current rule is that the ball is placed at the 30 and there is no limitation on where the kicking team can line up, except for the fact that you cannot load up on the sides as we put in play a couple of years ago. So what you have is the ball teed-up at the 30, and you typically have players lining up anywhere from the 20 all the way back to the 15 -- a majority of them lined up at the 15. That is where players line up today. Under the proposed rule, the kickoff line now becomes the 35, and the players are not allowed to line up beyond or behind the 30-yard line. So they have to be within 5 yards of the kickoff. So you are moving the player from where their starting point is, you are moving that coverage team 15 yards up. We are basically trying to shorten the field a little bit with respect to their running start. That is the proposal.
On significance of the 35-yard line against the 30:RM:
You could, but our feeling is that we want to change the entire play, and this is one way we think we change the entire play. The thought was that this creates even a shorter field than if you keep it at the 30 and move back to the 25 -- you have added five more yards of running. Our feeling was this was a way to deal with the injury numbers and the tape that we saw.
On providing clear language for suspensions in response to flagrant fouls, particularly for repeat offenders:RA:
That is correct. We want to be much clearer about what could be a suspend-able offense. Again, the emphasis is on, like we said, head and neck, defenseless players and illegal helmet use is what the emphasis will be. We will really work hard at making sure that folks understand in the 'repeat offender' category and the 'what is flagrant' category what we are looking to get out of the game. That being said, every case will still be determined on its own facts and circumstances when we are making these discipline determinations.
On if past years are taken into consideration when determining repeat offenders:
RA: We go back two years in terms of what a repeat offender is. That has been on the books and players understand that. For the last couple years, it has been we will go back two years in terms of repeat offenders.
On the appeals process:
RA: The appeals process will remain the same. We have the two appeals officers with regard to on-field fines. Obviously, the commissioner also has the authority to hear certain appeals or designate appeals to another hearing officer in appropriate cases.
On considering the ability to review all scoring plays up until the ensuing kickoff rather than the PAT:RM
: Yes, we did. There are a number of people on the committee who proposed that maybe that was the way to go because that would give more time for the guy upstairs to decide. We came out at the end of the day that you have to keep the standard to the idea that the review stops at the next legal snap. That way you deal with the idea of the team that goes for two and that way you deal with the idea of a team that potentially had an injury on the play. Then you go back and say, 'Yeah, they had an injury on the play but the play doesn't count because we decided to review it.'
I don't think anybody became comfortable that we would wait and go all the way through the kickoff. What we did become comfortable with was we don't think this will add a lot of time to the game because No. 1, we looked at all of the challenges made by coaches -- this is their No. 1-challenged play, which is scoring plays. We think we might be able to even cut that down. No. 2, we will have the mechanic in place that you had [Mike Pereira] and that you were part of which is that the umpire is not going to put the ball ready for play until -- as you guys used to say, he is stretching out the time. In this case, he'll be able to stretch out the time until the confirmation is made.
We don't want the quick buzz down. We want the actual confirmation and then we want the try. To your point, yes we did consider the idea of going all the way through the kickoff.
On challenge rate in comparison to past years:RM:
I don't have my book because it is on the way to New Orleans. I know this: The number of challenges has gone up. When you look at the start of the system to now, challenges are up. I wouldn't say that in the last three or four years they have gone up significantly at all, but I think if you look from the start of the system to now, no question they are up. Heck, they might be up some 60-70 percent.
Our feeling is that one thing that we have had a change of since this system was put in is the invention and the use of a thing called high definition television. The fact that you have a lot more plays that we would have thought were close plays that you couldn't really have ever viewed in the past which you can clearly can now. We view that as coaches as a disadvantage somewhat with respect to that because the guy at home sits home, sees the high-def picture and the coach is looking up at a video board that is in an end zone or in the Cowboys' case on top of them and is then put in a place of whether he has got to throw a challenge (flag) or not. We do think that has been a problem and that is one of the reasons that we proposed the change we made. I don't have a specific number. I definitely can have them for you in New Orleans.
On balancing comments from coaches and players regarding the differences between aggressive play and illegal play:RA:
It is probably not as difficult as you think because while there may be a handful of defensive coaches who push back and understandably they want to protect their players -- we understand that -- but there are also some defensive coaches who will applaud us for the position we are taking because they believe it will lead to better coaching and teaching of fundamentals. There are coaches who believe the game can be played as physically and as tough as you want yet still be played within the rules and be played so that guys aren't having their head and neck compromised. There are a handful who have resisted. We think and hope they will come around, but there are others who frankly are fully supportive of what we are doing.
On likelihood of adopting the proposed rules to kickoffs:
The Competition Committee was certainly unanimous on this. I don't know. I don't ever speak for counting votes. I know this: The play is such and the injury data is such and the video is such that it needs revision. That will certainly be the message we will try to send. I also know that coaches can be sometimes resistant to change. This is a change that we think needs to happen.
On if injuries were higher for players on of the kickoff team or kick-return team:
RM:Traditionally it has been the kicking team more than the receiving team. That has traditionally been the numbers.
On how teams will adjust to new safety rules during kickoffs and if more will aim for touchbacks:
RM:There is no question that people will consider that tactic but I still look at the average return. The average (kick) return this year, the ball came down at the 5.5(-yard line). It is not like the average is going to go back in the end zone. We don't necessarily view that.
The biggest thing you are getting out of this is shortening the field. The field just got 15 yards shorter, if you will, for the kicking team. We are hopeful that the change will have an impact on the injury numbers. We thought by balancing the way we tried to balance all of the other rules that go into that you still end up with a start line that is probably pretty close to where we were.
You don't know. I remember a couple years ago we had a lot of pushback when we proposed outlawing the three-man wedge and that pushback was that the kickoff would not be the same. In reality, it is not the same; it is better from the standpoint of kickoff returns for touchdowns. We want to see what these changes will bring, but I couldn't tell you that I can predict for you because there are a lot of smart special teams coaches who will come up with ways.
On Competition Committee input regarding safety in an 18-game season:
RM: We were asked years ago -- I'm going to say two years ago -- to give our input with respect to it, the main focus being that if we go to 18 games, what were our thoughts on revising the offseason, revising training camp and revising the regular season to deal with the potential of playing two more regular-season games. We did that. We wrote out a pretty long report with respect to a lot of our thoughts. A lot of those thoughts got incorporated this year in the discussions that involved the 16-and-4 offseason and regular-season adjustments.
Yes, they asked for our input and we gave it to them. We believe that when you look at it, you just don't look at the number of games because in reality, the number of games, 20, remains the same 18-and-2 versus 16-and-four. You look at the whole process. The whole process in our mind begins in the offseason. We were in favor of a lot of revisions to that offseason really for the betterment of the health and safety of the players and it would be the idea that we still believe you can get ready to play games and play at the same level that we have been playing. We did give feedback. We gave written feedback. We gave a lot of ideas and a lot of those ideas got discussed because I was in those meetings in Washington, D.C. with the players. Hopefully, there will come a time where we can get back to discussion, though, and reach agreement.
On decreasing kickoff returns to decrease injuries:
RM:I wouldn't say that is the sole intent. I would say there is a byproduct. We are trying to shorten the field but there is a byproduct in shortening the field of the fact that touchbacks will go up. I don't know how significantly they will go up, but if you look at the historical numbers, you would say - I'm going to go off the top of my head, which is always scary to do, especially when you have as little hair as I do - that we were about a 30-percent touchback number where now we are at about a 20-perecnt touchback number from the 30 versus 35. You would say our kickers might have stronger legs today so maybe you would have more of those touchbacks, but the counter to that is when we moved the kickoff, we were using footballs that teams had control of and were probably of a different quality than the K-ball that then got introduced and probably made it a little harder to kick. Do I think there will be the potential for fewer returns? Yes. Do we think it is a huge magnitude change? No.
On preserving the importance of skilled kick returners while increasing safety:
RM:Yes, there is a balancing act. It is a very good way to look at it because that's what we try to make in this proposal. We had a number of clubs in the survey that actually proposed the potential of the elimination of the play. That's not where we were. The balancing act is trying to adjust the play and keep the play in the game but realize that modifications were probably in order with respect to the play itself.