For the second straight year, special teams would be most directly impacted by a potential major rule changes proposed by the NFL's competition committee.
A year ago, alterations to the "wedge" during kickoffs went into effect. And if the committee gets the votes it needs during the owners meetings next week in New Orleans, the entire scope of kickoffs will be changed -- perhaps drastically.
NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson, and Falcons team president Rich McKay, also the president of the competition committee, explained their proposals to the media during a Wednesday morning conference call.
Player safety was the focus of the group's work this offseason, with Anderson vowing that repeat offenders of flagrant hits will end up suspended in 2011 and explaining some new language that would be inserted into the rulebook regarding "defenseless players." McKay detailed sweeping changes to kickoffs and kickoff coverage, also aimed at curbing injuries, and the committee also proposed making all scoring plays automatically reviewable.
Personally, the fact that playoff reseeding won't be addressed -- despite the 7-9 Seahawks hosting a playoff game last season -- is a letdown. And the lack of changes to the "Calvin Johnson" play regarding a receiver going to the ground during a catch, coupled with no alterations made to the "Tuck Rule," was surprising, considering more purveyors of the sport clamoring for "common sense" interpretations of those somewhat esoteric regulations.
So talk next week in New Orleans, aside from the obvious labor issues, is likely to center on Anderson's vigor in being even more vigilant in terms of fines and suspensions, with players and coaches essentially "on notice" now after a mid-season crackdown in 2010. And with all the head coaches gathered, they will debate the merits of moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 and positioning everyone on the kickoff team to be within the 30-to-35 yard line to avoid players get a racing start to coverage. Also, kickoff touchbacks could begin at the 25 instead of the 20.
Obviously, there is no data to back up precisely how this would change the game, but clearly touchbacks have been incentivized to avoid violent, full-speed collisions. It will be easier for kickers to get the ball to the end zone from the 35, and with touchbacks now moved out to the 25, many returners would be more inclined to take a knee.
McKay believes the average start on kickoffs will remain around the 27-yard line, as it currently is, and pointed out that kickoffs used to be at the 35. The high rate of injury on kickoffs carried the day with the competition committee.
"Concussions and major injuries both are there in the play," McKay said of kickoffs. "And we feel both need addressing."
Curtailing the wedge entirely would limit further contact, and while McKay said the group thought of proposing the other changes while leaving kickoffs at the 30, "our feeling is we wanted to change the entire play, and this is one way we can change the entire play."
Makes sense to me.
The field of play has grown none, but the players have. The speed of the game is break-neck. All of that has to be taken into account. The changes to the wedge didn't seem to have any negative pushback on the quality of special teams play last season.
McKay said during their survey of coaches that some suggested doing away with kickoffs entirely, and I figure these proposals will omit the need for many teams to carry a kickoff specialist (freeing up a roster spot) and will place even more of a premium on a truly elite return man. Consider me on board.
Change is not always good
My concern with the replay proposal -- mandatory reviewing of any touchdown, safety, field goal, etc. -- is the element of time. It's the same issue Mike Pereira, former head of NFL officiating and now a Fox analyst, raised during the conference call. Clearly, a great many scoring plays are blatantly obvious, requiring no heavy review. But games could be bogged down because of this.
However, McKay noted that a large percentage of coaching challenges are already made on scoring plays and likened this process to how games are officiated in the final two minutes, with replay review originating from the booth and not the sidelines. I can't imagine too many head coaches would object to this.
"On a scoring play, why not use the same process we use in the last two minutes, and relieve them (coaches) of that responsibility?" McKay said. "We want to see what the effect is, and certainly we don't want to slow down games."
McKay also pointed out there will be no slippery slope here. This suggestion won't open doors to going back to the bad old days -- my words there -- when every play was subject to possible review.
Players won't have too much to gripe about with any of these rules-of-play proposals. But prepare for considerable griping with regards to rewording some of the "defenseless player" interpretations and the potential punishments that will come from disobeying. This time around it's about giving all parties sufficient "advance notice."
In 2011, there should be no surprises. Suspensions should come as no shock.
Anderson reiterated the mandate to make the game as safe as possible, while acknowledging it will always be a contact sport. He aims to eradicate the most egregious types of hits to the head, putting in specific language with regards to a player "launching" himself into the head and neck area of another player. And repeat offenders, or those who have been ruled to have committed these illegal acts over the past two years, are on special notice.
Like art, a suspendible hit is in the eye of the beholder. New language would make more clear what constitutes a "defenseless receiver" and how long he is determined to be in that state. And, in all, the league will be "much more clear about what could be a suspendible offense," Anderson said.
McKay will lead a presentation for all teams Monday, with voting happening Tuesday afternoon before the meeting concludes. McKay said not much consideration was given to expanding last year's key change -- altering the overtime format for the postseason -- into the regular season. The circumstance never came up last season in the playoffs, and McKay said there is "no rush" to increase its scope for now.
McKay pointed to a lack of sentiment from the coaches and executives surveyed in regards to changing the playoff format and reseeding Nos. 3 through 6 based on record and not accounting for division winners. McKay is a big proponent of that change -- as am I -- but the competition committee did not feel there was an "appetite" for reseeding now. McKay considers it a topic to be reintroduced later.