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Player safety still high on NFL agenda

Owners will mull rules changes

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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Labor talk temporarily took a back seat to rules talk yesterday as the NFL held a conference call in advance of the annual spring meetings this weekend in New Orleans.

The focus was on potential rules changes the Competition Committee will propose for approval by the league’s owners.

Player safety remains an emphasis, and to that end, league vice president of football operations Ray Anderson as well as Competition Committee chairman (and Falcons president) Rich McKay emphasized that repeat violators of the rule against devastating hits — blindsiding a defenseless player — could face suspension.

“The committee certainly fully supported the aggressive protection of defenseless players and aggressive protection against unnecessary hits to the head, neck area, and illegal helmet hits,’’ Anderson said. “We understand that we need to continue in terms of disciplining to discourage repeat offenders and flagrant violators and hold not just players but coaches and clubs accountable for playing to and coaching to the rules.

“There will be strong support in the 2011 season for making sure that players understand that, when warranted, suspensions will be an effective discipline for us.

“We don’t want to go there, but if we must, we’re prepared to do that because these rules are meant to protect everybody on the field and all are accountable to those player safety rules.

“So discipline, and aggressive discipline, for these player safety rules and violations, particularly the ones that we all know can be devastating, will be an emphasis in 2011.’’

The committee also will define what constitutes a defenseless player, breaking it down into eight categories:

■ a quarterback in the act of throwing;

■ a receiver trying to catch a pass;

■ a runner already in the grasp of tacklers and having his forward progress stopped;

■ a player fielding a punt or kickoff;

■ a kicker or punter during the kick;

■ a quarterback at any time after change of possession;

■ a receiver who receives a blind-side block;

■ a player already on the ground.

The modification to the defenseless player rule is one of three major proposals McKay said will be discussed, and there are just five rule proposals total, fewer than in most years. There will also be a number of clarifications to existing rules.

The second major rule is a modification of the kickoff; because of the injury rate, the committee is proposing moving the kickoff ahead to the 35-yard line from the 30, eliminating all wedge blocks (including the two-man wedge), and moving the touchback on kickoffs to the 25-yard line from the 20.

The third proposal is to modify instant replay. Under the new proposal, all scoring plays would be reviewed by the replay official, eliminating the need for coaches to use a challenge on a scoring play. Accordingly, coaches would be allowed just two challenges per game; currently they get three.

At the start of the call, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said all 32 coaches are expected to be in New Orleans and attend the annual breakfast with media members, meaning the Patriots’ Bill Belichick will be available to share his thoughts on the upcoming draft and any other topics.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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