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Guard is up in NFL

Rule changes protect players — and league

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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NEW ORLEANS — Last season, it was the increase in fines for helmet-to-helmet hits.

Last week, the National Football League said suspensions would be coming for repeat violators of those types of collisions.

Yesterday, it was rule changes on kickoffs, designed to reduce injuries on one of the most dangerous plays in the game.

Kickoffs will now take place at the 35-yard line instead of the 30, increasing the chance of a touchback by 5 to 15 percent, according to league estimates.

If you think the NFL has gotten very serious about injury risks, especially those dealing with the head and neck, you are not mistaken.

“We make a lot of rules that we’re trying to make this game better, or that we’re trying to correct what would be an inequitable rule,’’ said Falcons team president Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s Competition Committee. “This is neither of those. This is a rule that is 100 percent based on player safety.’’

Some players who will be affected most by the rule didn’t like the news.

“Essentially taking returners out of the game,’’ Browns standout returner Joshua Cribbs said on twitter. “Injuries will still take place, then what, move it up again or eliminate it all together(?)’’

There are probably many fans who are wondering what is happening to their favorite game, which is obviously violent in nature. That’s the way they like it. It’s part of what has made football the most popular sport — by far — in this country.

Privately, some coaches are grumbling the same sentiment.

But the NFL continues to have no choice but to try to make the game safer, for two primary reasons.

One, information is constantly being made available that shows playing football can have a dramatic effect on a player’s long-term health. More is being worked on, including at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, of which the NFL is a partner.

“I think as we get more educated about some of the effects of some of these injuries, particularly when we’re talking about head and neck area injuries, that we have a responsibility to respond,’’ said NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson. “So times have changed.

“The equipment is more like armor now and it’s used in a different way than it was before. So we’ve got to be proactive about protecting against devastating, harmful head and neck injuries, against defenseless players.

“And so we’re going to do that, we’re going to continue to look for ways to improve, and that really is our charge. Times have changed.’’

The other reason the NFL must be proactive against injuries is to protect itself monetarily.

Currently, the league is trying to fend off a class-action lawsuit, Brady v. NFL, in regards to the collective bargaining agreement. It may soon find itself the defendant in one or more class-action lawsuits for failure to protect players against injuries.

The New Yorker reported in January that two groups of lawyers were preparing suits on behalf of recent players, and they could be filed by summer.

According to NFL Players Association sources, the threat of such suits is an underlying reason why the league is playing hardball on the new CBA. They feel the league is trying to grab as much money as it can before these and other cases are tried, with the potential of damage awards in the hundred of millions of dollars.

It is expected that after cleaning up the language in some of the proposals, the league will broaden the rules that govern defenseless players against players who launch themselves and hit with the helmet.

“Our intent with launching was trying to make a uniform rule that applied everywhere on the field to every player,’’ McKay said.

Somewhat surprisingly, coaches are in favor of suspensions for players who are repeat offenders with vicious helmet-to-helmet hits. Maybe they’re getting the message.

“I think their sentiment was to continue the fine process and don’t hesitate to use suspensions,’’ McKay said. “I think there was a push by the coaches to use suspension and to keep suspension as a potential [outcome]. Because in their mind, there was tremendous movement by the players when the point was emphasized that suspension could occur. They said that a number of times.’’

The league also passed a rule that makes all scoring plays subject to confirmation by the replay official, as each is in the final two minutes of each half. The coaches will still have a third challenge if their first two are successful, but they won’t have to burn any on touchdowns.

The replay rule was designed to make the game equitable between home and road teams, the latter of which are at a disadvantage at seeing timely replays on stadium scoreboards.

The kickoff rule may make the game more “boring’’ to some, but there’s no question it will make the game at least a little bit safer.

That, the NFL has to look at every season.

“What we have tried to do is come up with rules and make sure we stay focused on taking the helmet-to-helmet hits out of the game to the extent we can,’’ McKay said. “It is not a perfect world. You are still going to have some.

“When that player is in a very vulnerable place, we stay focused on that. Culturally, I think anybody that works for any team, any coach, would tell you that [the thinking] has changed. I think it will continue to change.

“And that is great — it is where it should be.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

NFL rule changes for 2011 season

■Kickoffs moved up to 35-yard line from the 30.

■All scoring plays will be reviewed in the booth.

■Playing surfaces must be a league-approved shade of green.

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