Rule changes unanimously approved Tuesday at an NFL owners meeting could have a chilling effect on defensive players.
The league has further defined what constitutes a “defenseless position” to provide better player protection. There also are further restrictions on the ability to “launch” and level a defenseless player (i.e. leaving both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent or using any part of the helmet).
Not only will there be a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty but the launching defender can be ejected from the game if the action is judged flagrant by the officiating crew.
“There were too many hits that came in the past three years that were legal but not ones that we were comfortable the player who got hit had any opportunity to do anything to protect themselves,” said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is head of the NFL’s competition committee.
The league also announced plans for another safety initiative that will result in teams being fined if their players accumulate too many penalties for illegal hits. The NFL already fines teams if too many of their players run into off-field legal trouble under the personal conduct policy.
The exact details of the new “club accountability” guidelines are still being formulated but NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch expects implementation for the 2011 season (provided it’s played).
“We’re trying to encourage clubs and coaches to teach the proper techniques and correct dangerous play on the field,” Birch said.
The following hits on players in a “defenseless posture” are now illegal:
• A player in the act or just after throwing a pass.
• A receiver attempting to catch a pass or one who has not completed a catch and hasn’t had time to protect himself or hasn’t clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.
• A runner whose forward progress has been stopped and is already in the grasp of a tackler.
• A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air.
• A player on the ground at the end of a play.
• A kicker/punter during the kick or return.
• A quarterback any time after a change of possession (i.e. turnover).
• A player who receives a “blindside” block when the blocker is moving toward his own end-line and approaches the opponent from behind or the side.
Prohibited contact against a player in a defenseless position was further defined as “forcibly hitting the neck or head area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him.” It is also illegal to lower the head and make forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body.
The latter provision does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or helmet in the course of a conventional tackle.
“This will permanently change the mentality, we think, of the defensive back trying to separate the ball in that you’ve got to lower your aim point,” McKay said. “The aim point has got to come into the numbers or below as opposed to above because you have to give that player an opportunity to defend themselves.”
McKay said the “launching” rule likely wouldn’t result in an increase in player ejections and isn’t a point of emphasis for officials who already had the ability to issue disqualifications for hits that clearly cross the line.
“We’ve always said that disqualification has to be open and obvious to you,” McKay said. “It’s hard at full speed to determine that act was so egregious that it deserves a disqualification. When in doubt, always throw the penalty (flag) and defer to the videotape to determine if a suspension or something else is necessary. We’re not changing that standard at all.”
McKay said some of the inspiration to further bar “launching” stemmed from an alarming increase in the tactic at the college level.
“I think we always look at ourselves where we want to set the standards and help people downstream,” McKay said. “We think we needed to make a point. You’re doing it as much to protect the guy getting hit as the guy doing the hitting. We have a couple of plays on videotape where the guy doing the hitting is getting hurt.
“We just don’t like the fact that people have decided they can use their bodies, spring off the ground, lead with their head and expect to have a good result all the time.”
The third approved rule change clarified protection of the quarterback. Hits to the head of a passer by an opponent’s hands, arms or other parts of the body will not be fouls unless they are forcible blows.
“There are a number of plays this past year that many of us weren’t comfortable with (being) fouls,” McKay said. “We think we’ve got good video to show the referee what we want called and don’t want called. We think it will lessen penalties. We don’t think it involves player safety at all because if you do strike the quarterback with any force at all in the helmet, it is a penalty.”
These rule changes were tabled at a March owners meeting because some teams were unhappy with the wording that was presented by the NFL’s competition committee. Teams approved the revamped measures by a 32-0 vote.