Fewer fines with new safety rules

No NFL players have come close to being suspended for illegal

hits through five weeks of the season. The number of fines for such

hits is down.

That’s an indication players are adjusting their tackling

styles, well aware of the increasing emphasis on player safety. It

hardly makes pro football the safest sport out there, and the rules

remain fuzzy for many defensive players, including Bears star

linebacker Brian Urlacher. He was penalized for what certainly

appeared to be a shoulder-on-shoulder tackle on Tony Scheffler in

Monday night’s victory by the Lions. One play later, Matthew

Stafford hit Brandon Pettigrew for an 18-yard touchdown.

”I would never say there is no gray area,” NFL executive vice

president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated

Press on Tuesday. ”But on the field, officials are doing the job

they should be.

”We are moving full speed with our emphasis on safety and on

protecting defenseless players and we will be aggressive on

protecting player safety, very protective. Certainly everyone will

need more education as we go along and we will proceed on that.

”There have been fewer fines, but not significantly fewer. We

have come nowhere near any suspension decisions and that is

encouraging.”

Just under one year ago, the league clamped down on flagrant

hits after a weekend of reckless tackling led to hefty fines for

Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, New England safety Brandon

Meriweather (now with Chicago) and Atlanta cornerback Dunta

Robinson. In the offseason, owners passed rules suggested by the

competition committee, which Anderson oversees along with Falcons

President Rich McKay, that further protected defenseless players.

That included attempts to eliminate launching at an opponent

headfirst, among the most dangerous maneuvers in football – or any

sport, for that matter.

The committee hoped coaches and players would readily adapt.

Anderson and McKay are seeing evidence they have.

So is Commissioner Roger Goodell.

”I think we showed a reel of plays today that showed the game

has changed,” Goodell said. ”Players are using techniques other

than using their (helmets). We’re seeing significant change.”

Added Anderson: ”It certainly appears players have lowered

their targets, adjusted their play. We are seeing more fundamental

tackling and we are encouraged by that.”

Following the 4 1/2-month lockout, there was concern that such

fundamentals would be lost as teams hurried to get playbooks

installed, evaluate talent and prepare for the regular season.

Instead, Anderson and McKay are seeing a safer game, albeit through

only five weeks of a 17-week schedule.

”Certainly coaches are doing a better job coaching to the

rules,” Anderson said. ”Players seem to be playing to the rules

better, and that also is encouraging.”

The most controversial rules change this year came in the

kicking game, with kickoffs moved up to the 35-yard line. McKay

notes that touchbacks are up more than the league anticipated,

which also could be a function of good weather.

”It has not affected offensive production from a scoring

standpoint,” he added with a sly smile.

No, it hasn’t:

-The 3,566 points scored through Week 5 are the most at this

point of any season in NFL history.

-Total net yards per game (712.0) would be the highest for any

season should it hold.

-Net yards passing per game (489.2) would be the highest of any

season, too.

-The 46.31 points per game would be the second-highest average

for a single season in NFL history (1948, 46.48).

While McKay said there has been no ”backlash” regarding the

kickoff rule and the subsequent reduction in returns, one of

football’s most exciting and dangerous plays, he admitted: ”We

knew it was a change and it would be one that initially was not

perceived positively. It was done 100 percent for safety

reasons.”

Goodell mentioned a ”new tracking system” for injuries that

should enable the league to be on top of any trends.

”When injuries occur, we can see how, see video of them, what

type of injuries they are,” he said.

Perhaps as notable – and noticeable – as the kickoff change has

been the decision to conduct video reviews of every scoring play.

The league’s goal has been to make it noninvasive and Anderson said

the amount of delay time has been slightly down this season. He

hoped it would be ”neutral” and credits that reduction in delays

to the mechanics of the system involving the replay booth and the

referee.

The key should not be time saved, however, it should be getting

calls right. Impetus for the change came because coaches of road

teams were not always getting a fair shake when it came to replays

made available in away stadiums.

One problem that could arise from reviewing every touchdown,

field goal, safety and extra point is having on-field officials

signal a score when in doubt, knowing the play will be

reviewed.

”We’ve always worried that people will officiate based on

replay, but there is no evidence at all of that,” McKay said.

One other item that came up this season was defensive players

faking injuries to slow no-huddle offenses, something the New York

Giants were accused of in their Week 2 victory over St. Louis. The

league sent a memo to each team emphasizing the need to eliminate

such tactics.

Anderson said that has not been an issue since.