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Q&A: Jeff Fisher talks about work with NFL Competition Committee

By Bill Bradley, contributing editor

Jeff Fisher has been involved in the NFL since he was a member of the vaunted Chicago Bears defense during the early 1980s. He has evolved into one of the NFL's most influential leaders, serving as the coach of the Tennessee Titans from 1994-2010 and the St. Louis Rams since 2012.

Fisher, 56, also is the co-chair of the highly respected NFL Competition Committee, which helps to set the league's agenda as it relates to playing rules. He was appointed to the group in 2000.

The USC graduate talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley last week about his role with the Competition Committee, how lasts season's new player safety rules worked and how the NFL will roll out the committee's plans to improve respect among players on and off the field during the offseason.

How were you selected for the Competition C*ommittee?*

It was really an honor. We had just finished the 1999 season and I'll never forget the phone call from Commissioner (Paul) Tagliabue. There was a spot open on the committee and he called me personally and invited me to become a member. There's a Draft Day phone call -- that call you get on Draft Day that is really one of the neatest things to happen to you in life -- and this was pretty close to that one when the commissioner called and gave me the opportunity to be a part of the committee.

How hard is it to juggle committee responsibilities along with your duties as a head coach?

It's not difficult at all. The committee will meet for the first time in February at the (NFL Scouting) Combine and spend four or five days together. Then, we'll reconvene at Naples (Fla.) for another four or five days to finish up the report. Then we'll present the committee report to the membership.

During the past few years, it seems the committee has taken on a greater leadership role in player safety issues. Was there a watershed moment for that?

It's been a priority for as long as I've been on it. I just think in recent years it's become really the main talking point and the focus. But there are a lot of other things that the committee will address and discuss, approve and disapprove that's anything competitive related. Player safety has been an essential focus for us for a number of years.

Is there one player safety rule that you are most proud of passing during your time on the committee?

I couldn't identify just one, but there's numerous rule changes and points of emphasis that have reflected a change on the field almost immediately. It's hard to avoid the horse-collar tackle, for example, but the players understand why the rule is in there -- because of the injury rate prior to us making that a personal foul. Also, there's launching -- where the (defensive backs) were launching with the head and neck area of defenseless players. There's some other things in line play, like the illegal crack-back blocks and those kind of things where we have expanded the defenseless-player category to include just about anybody on the field in certain situations.

As co-chair and a coach, you've had to deal with some of the Competition Committee's decisions first hand. How do you sell changes like the "crown of the helmet rule" to your players?

The league does that through its officiating department. (Former vice president of officiating) Mike Pereira was always good at it. (Current vice president of officiating) Dean Blandino is exceptional right now at doing it from the standpoint of pulling out plays, putting video together with voiceover presentations and showing them what's a foul and what's not a foul. He also does a really good job of showing them how this play could have been made from a legal standpoint. That's very important for the players -- where you show a legal hit versus an illegal hit. The committee has supported Dean and his staff.

After all the talk about "crown of the helmet rule," it turned out that the line-overload rule on place kicks was the most controversial rule change from last season. Why do you think that was?

I don't know that it was controversial. I thought it was much-needed. During the spring, the committee looks at almost every injury and every type of injury. And we look at injuries at different positions, from knee injuries to concussions to everything. This aspect of our game from an overloading standpoint, it created situations where we literally had three giant defensive players lined up on one basically defenseless offensive player. It created problems. (Injury) numbers don't reflect the change. There were still blocked extra points -- a couple of them -- and numerous blocked field goals. The coaches will adjust when those changes are put into effect.

This year your committee's mission seems to be changing the culture of the locker room. At what point during the offseason did the committee decide that changes need to happen in this area?

It was a priority from Day 1. Early in February at the combine, we started looking at workplace conduct and we had numerous discussions on it. We listened to the Players Association. There was a lot of feedback from the questionnaire that went to the membership. It became a priority of ours from Day 1.

During the annual meeting, you frequently used the word "respect." Do you think that message is getting across to the players already?

It is and it will continue to be pushed. We'll show presentations throughout training camp and early in the regular season. There will be videos that will be sent to each member club that not only will be required to be shown to the players but also to other non-player members of the organization.

As a head coach, how do you address the respect issue in your own locker room?

You address the respect issue in a team-meeting environment. With respect to its application, it's not just locker room. It's practice field. It's on and off the field. It's on Sunday and it's on game days.

As you have led the way on changing the culture in locker rooms, it almost seems fitting that the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL draftee. How did your franchise pave the way for him?

We did our draft due diligence. Michael's a former SEC defensive player of the year. He was a fine player in an outstanding conference. He was a productive player. Michael was one of a number of players that was on the board that had a high grade, so we wanted to give Michael an opportunity. We're living in a world now of inclusion and diversity. I didn't see it as a distraction or anything. I saw it as an opportunity for our football team to get better and also an opportunity for Mike to pursue his dream.

All media reports out of St. Louis say that he has been accepted into your locker room. Do you find that to be true?

Yes. Mike's part of this football team right now. He's part of the Rams family right now.

What's next on the radar for the Competition Committee in terms of player health and safety issues? Was anything left on the table after last spring's meetings?

There may be some things that will be addressed. We address numerous things every year. But if there's an issue, the committee will address it. We felt like the game is good. The rules that have gone in effect over the years are being reflected by the play of the players on the field. I feel like we're headed in the right direction. With each passing year, you're seeing changes on the field. We think that's important.

Do you see the game as being safer these days?

We feel like it's a lot safer. You can take, for example, the number of injuries on kickoffs have declined significantly because the return numbers are down. It's still a dangerous play, but with the return numbers down, the concussions are way down. We don't have as many concussions on touchbacks. Yes, we feel like the game is in a good place right now.

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