Those are the two most significant rule changes that will be proposed, according to competition committee chair Rich McKay, who spoke with reporters on a conference call Wednesday. The proposals will be voted on by owners at the annual spring meeting, scheduled for March 20-22 in New Orleans.
Also, player safety will remain a paramount issue at the meeting, with a message being delivered that flagrant, illegal hits to defenseless players could result in suspensions in 2011.
Kickoff rules might undergo other modifications, as well. Players on the kickoff team would have to line up no more than 5 yards behind the kickoff line, shortening their running start, while all wedge blocks would be eliminated. Touchbacks, which almost certainly would increase with kickers gaining a 5-yard advantage, would put the ball on the 25-yard line, rather than the traditional 20. A kickoff that goes out of bounds would still be placed at the 40.
The impetus for the changes is the frequency of injuries the competition committee has seen on kickoffs, McKay said. Kickoffs were moved from the 35 back to the 30 in 1994.
“Concussions and major injuries, both are there in the play and both need addressing,” McKay said. “We watched a lot of film and it’s a play that needs modification.”
By limiting the running start for coverage players and moving the kickoff line ahead 5 yards, the committee’s goal is to “shorten the field” and thereby reduce injuries. Moving a touchback to the 25 is designed to even out the effects for both the kicking and receiving teams and hopefully keep the majority of kickers from just blasting the ball into the end zone.
McKay said the average starting position following a kickoff last year was just beyond the 27-yard line, and kickoffs landed at an average of the 5.5-yard line.
“We tried to balance the other rules that go into it and we think we’ll still end up with a start line pretty close to where we were,” McKay said.
As for the instant replay system, the committee will propose that all scoring plays be subject to review, the same as plays in the last two minutes of both halves and in overtime.
The replay official in the booth would determine if a scoring play needs to be reviewed, and the referee on the field would look at the video, same as the current system.
Scoring plays have been the most frequently challenged plays, McKay said. With them no longer subject to coach’s challenges, coaches also would no longer be able to gain a third challenge based on successfully using their first two. Coaches would have just two challenges, whether successful or not.
“We do put a lot of stress on the coaches because of the fact that they deal with going on the road, with different video boards that tend to not always show a review,” McKay said. “We felt on scoring plays, which are major plays, why not use the same process as in the last two minutes to relieve them of that responsibility?
“We want to see what the effect is. We don’t want to slow down the game. I don’t think anytime you’ll see us going to a system (like the current college one) where every play is reviewable based on the guy upstairs.”
The competition committee also discussed re-seeding for the playoffs and implementing the new postseason overtime rule for the regular season, but neither idea has enough support for a formal proposal at this point, McKay said. No postseason games went into overtime this past season, so there’s nothing on which to judge the impact of the rule.
Other than the proposed rule changes, the committee also is continuing to focus its energies on player safety.
McKay said there will be a proposal to expand the “defenseless player” rule so as to protect a receiver “until he can protect himself or clearly becomes a runner.” Language also will be specified in the rules to prohibit “launching,” which will be defined as “leaving the feet and springing forward and upward to deliver a blow with any part of the helmet or facemask.”
More significant than those clarifications will be communication that flagrant hits to the head and neck area or with the head/helmet will be subject to much stronger discipline, including suspensions.
Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, noted in the conference call that the league didn’t feel players and teams were given fair warning last year that suspensions could result from flagrant, illegal hits even though it was in the rules; therefore, the primary measure of discipline was fines.
Anderson stressed that suspensions will now be a viable option “without the hesitation” the league exercised in 2010. A player’s history involving such actions will play a role, too.
“We are not relenting on this,” Anderson said. “In 2011, if there are repeat offenders or flagrant violators, we will hold them accountable, even if it means suspension.
“Some hold the view that suspension is the real messenger in terms of seriousness of enforcement. We hope we don’t get there but everyone will be on notice.”
Mike Spofford is a 1995 Masters graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who worked as a sports reporter for two daily newspapers in Wisconsin, covering the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Spofford has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006.