Coaching For Change: Rules Changes Designed to Improve Health and Safety

The 2018 Rules Changes

Before the 2018 season, NFL clubs approved significant new rules changes that aim to improve player safety, including making it a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent, and modifying the kickoff play.

A comprehensive review of data and video led by the NFL's medical and engineering advisors demonstrated the increased risk associated with lowering the head to align the neck and spine before initiating contact. This behavior put both the player making the contact and the player struck at greater risk of injury. The clubs unanimously agreed that a rule change could help to eliminate certain techniques that put players at risk.

The review also showed that over the course of all games during the 2015-2017 seasons, the kickoff represented only six percent of plays but 12 percent of concussions. Players had approximately four times the risk of concussion on the kickoff compared to running or passing plays. The changes to the kickoff rule addressed the components that posed the most risk, like the use of a two-man wedge, while maintaining the play.

The NFL Competition Committee

As head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers—now in his twelfth season—Mike Tomlin has led the Steelers to more than 120 wins, including a Super Bowl championship to cap the 2008 season.

Coach Tomlin understands firsthand how changing the rules of the game can improve player safety. That's why at the end of every season, he meets with other members of the NFL Competition Committee to consider and recommend new rules changes.

The Competition Committee, chaired by Atlanta Falcons president and chief executive officer Rich McKay, meets regularly after each Super Bowl to discuss player safety with physicians, safety experts and advocates—including the NFL medical committees and the NFL Players Association. Committee members include NFL owners, club executives and coaches.

"We want to keep the game competitively fair, and we want to make the game as safe as we can make it," Coach Tomlin said.

"Most of the rules that I've been involved with in the short time that I've been on the committee are health and safety-related," he said.

Collaboration and Data

The Competition Committee reviews all competitive aspects of the game, including playing rules, roster regulations, technology, game-day operations and player protection. The process for modifying or adopting rules and regulations is systematic and consensus-oriented.

First, during the season, the committee meets to review current issues in the game and to discuss potential agenda items for the next year's meeting. Throughout the season, injury data is compiled and analyzed by IQVIA (formerly QuintilesIMS), an independent third-party company providing epidemiological analysis.

The data is reviewed by the league and NFL Players Association and made available to medical experts, clubs, players, coaches and the NFL Competition Committee to guide them in making changes to the rules of the game and how practices are conducted. In the offseason, the Competition Committee proposes rules changes—rooted in this data analysis—for NFL clubs to consider and discuss before voting on any changes at the NFL Annual Meeting each spring.

"Injury data is a big part of it," Coach Tomlin said. "We'll watch all of the concussion video while discussing the concussion data."

"It provides great resources for us not only in terms of statistics but visually in terms of how the game is being played," he said.

New Changes and a 'Commonsense' Approach

Since 2002, the NFL has made 50 rules changes intended to eliminate potentially dangerous tactics and reduce the risk of injuries.

"I'm a proponent of rule evaluations annually," Coach Tomlin said. "I think we've got to be open to changing and getting better and make [the game] safe for those that play it."

For example, NFL clubs expanded protection to defenseless players before the 2019 season, making it a foul if a player initiates a block when his path is toward or parallel to his own end line and makes forcible contact to his opponent with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder."

"Guys were being injured with that tackling technique," Coach Tomlin said. "I think it was a very commonsense approach to a real issue."

The Evolution of the Game

"Rules changes are about the evolution of the game," Coach Tomlin said.

It's a game he's been a part of as a player and coach for over three decades.

"You talk to the players about the rule changes," Coach Tomlin said, "the reasons why, the points of emphasis, what the officials are looking for. But then you also talk to your coaches about how it might change our instruction or our teaching."

"The game is evolving," Coach Tomlin said, "and it's evolving for the better."