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NFL expected to discuss helmet hits

FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2011, file photo, Cleveland Browns guard Jason Pinkston (62) and wide receiver Greg Little (15) check on quarterback Colt McCoy (12) after he was hit by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh. McCoy injured his hand and was wobbled by a hit from linebacker and renowned Browns blaster James Harrison. The NFL has denied James Harrison's appeal of a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy, and the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker will sit out the game scheduled for Monday, Dec. 19, against the San Francisco 49ers. FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2011, file photo, Cleveland Browns guard Jason Pinkston (62) and wide receiver Greg Little (15) check on quarterback Colt McCoy (12) after he was hit by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh. McCoy injured his hand and was wobbled by a hit from linebacker and renowned Browns blaster James Harrison. The NFL has denied James Harrison's appeal of a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy, and the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker will sit out the game scheduled for Monday, Dec. 19, against the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer / December 18, 2011
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—The NFL is expected to look at expanding the ban on launching and helmet hits.

Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the league's competition committee, believes it will be a topic for his group during the offseason, and changes could be presented to the owners next spring.

"I think the launch will be discussed more and more and eventually we will see helmet hits modified in the open field," McKay said.

The competition committee recommends rules changes to the owners, who then vote on them at the annual March meetings. McKay's committee was influential in getting outlawed the technique of launching -- when a player leaves his feet and leads with his head -- against defenseless players.

McKay says the idea of potentially banning launching altogether was discussed last year.

"Coaches felt there were too many circumstances where players could be perceived as doing it and were not really," he said. "It is a big step, not something I expect membership gets comfortable with over a year's time."

Flagrant helmet hits have been a high-profile topic all season since the league banned launching in March. A 15-yard penalty is enforced for anyone who leaves both feet before contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent and delivers a blow to the helmet with any part of his helmet.

Such tackles also are subject to fines, ejections and suspensions.

McKay emphasized that Steelers linebacker James Harrison's hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Dec. 8 is not the catalyst for further discussions.

Harrison became the first player suspended for such a hit under the NFL's new guidelines, and will miss Pittsburgh's game at San Francisco on Monday night.

"I don't like the fact one play would drive the discussion more than a need to do it for a bigger reason: a lot of plays that are putting players at risk," McKay said. "Our game has taken some real steps in a safety direction and we see, culturally, some modifications. We need to continue in that direction."

McKay said game officials have told him they are seeing fewer hits with the target areas the head or neck, and more tacklers are leading with their shoulders.

He said that's significant because it's not only offensive players who are in danger when an illegal hit is made.

"When we are trying to deal with an issue like the launch, we are trying to protect the runner and the hitter," he said. "Some hits, a defensive player is leading with his head and not using his arms and really is exposing himself to injury as a flagrant foul is committed."

Defenseless players cannot be hit in the head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder. The definition of such players now includes those throwing a pass; attempting or completing a catch without having time to ward off or avoid contact; a runner whose forward progress has been stopped by a tackler; kickoff or punt returners while the ball is in the air; kickers or punters during a kick or a return; a quarterback during a change of possession; and a player who receives a blindside block from a blocker moving toward his own end zone.

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