Safety At Forefront, Overtime Not Up For Change At Owners' Meeting


Titans K Rob Bironas beats the Packers with an overtime field goal on the first possession of the extra period back on Nov. 2, 2008.

Most of the rule changes that will be proposed and voted upon at the annual NFL owners' meeting next week in Dana Point, Calif., are focused on player safety, according to the league's competition committee co-chair Rich McKay and NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson, who participated in a conference call with national media on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, issues surrounding overtime rules and the length of the regular season will continue to be discussed, but no formal proposals or votes are expected next week.

Regarding the current sudden-death overtime format, which has come under some scrutiny because of the high percentage of games that are won on the first possession by the team winning the coin toss, McKay and Anderson said there's been no consensus on what kinds of changes, if any, would be best.

In 2008, seven of the 15 overtime games ended with an offensive score on the first possession, a 46.7 percent figure that is far above the 30 percent figure for all overtime games since the current system was put in place in 1974.

"There are some statistics that concern us but not enough support at this time to change it," McKay said. "When we talked to the players and the membership, there was great support for the current system and that it works well from an excitement standpoint. There's nothing we're in a position to propose at this time."

The Packers lost two overtime games in 2008, at Tennessee and at Chicago, when their offense never got the ball. On the flip side, the Packers won in overtime in Denver in 2007 on the first snap from scrimmage after winning the toss. The overtime in the 2007 NFC Championship lasted two possessions, with the Giants kicking a game-winning field goal after an interception.

"I was surprised how adamant players were about not wanting to change the current overtime system," Anderson said, noting the players' concern for further injury exposure with any extended playing time. "They say the excitement is there, and everyone has an opportunity to win in regulation. Right now there's just no consensus whatsoever."

As for the regular-season schedule, structures involving a 17-game or 18-game season (with the number of preseason games reduced from four to three or two, depending) remain on the table, but no vote is anticipated. Any changes to the regular-season schedule would likely be part of the upcoming discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' association, Anderson said.

McKay outlined a handful of proposed rule changes that arose from an earlier joint meeting between the competition committee and the players' association's advisory council that revolved around player safety. Scheduled to be voted upon either Tuesday or Wednesday next week, the new rules would:

--Eliminate the bunch formation on kickoffs. A few years ago, a rule was enacted requiring kickoff teams to have at least four players on either side of the kicker, eliminating heavy overloading to one side or the other that came to be viewed as dangerous for the receiving team during onside kickoff attempts.

In response, some teams began to employ a bunch formation around the kicker for an onside kick, meeting the minimum requirement on each side of the kicker but having all 11 players in close proximity. In addition to maintaining the balanced formation, the new rule would require certain numbers of players outside the hashmarks and outside the numbers, keeping them safely spread out.

--Eliminate a "wedge" of three or more players on kickoff returns. A blocking "wedge" on kickoff returns would still be permitted, but only two players could be used to form it.

"When we watched the tape, it showed us these are situations where we're probably creating matchups we don't like," McKay said with respect to the two kickoff rules. "We sat down and went through a lot of safety issues (with the players), and they were quick to point to the wedge. That concerned them."

--Penalize any helmet-to-helmet contact that occurs on a blindside block. Any player, who because of his angle of pursuit may not see a block coming, could not be contacted in the head.

--Penalize any contact to the head of a "defenseless" receiver in mid-air. Helmet-to-helmet contact with defenseless receivers already is illegal, and the new rule would extend that protection to any contact with that receiver's head via a forearm or shoulder as well.

Anderson noted that in its film review of the 2008 season, the committee felt it was seeing previous helmet-to-helmet rules beginning to have the desired effect, and these additional protections would continue to promote safety.

"We noticed toward the second half of the season our violations for unnecessary roughness and helmet-to-helmet hits started to decline," Anderson said. "For those of us monitoring the game, it was very apparent players were adapting their play, still playing very aggressively but staying away from helmet-to-helmet hits. There was a significant trend toward tough, aggressive play, but playing within the rules."

{sportsad300}Two other potential rule changes have to do with expanding instant replay, though only slightly. McKay said the competition committee would propose that a loose ball recovered by the defense that is ruled an incomplete pass by the officials on the field be subject to review, and that a fumble recovery along the sidelines on a ball that is ruled out of bounds also be reviewable.

These changes are merely an extension of the change made a couple of years ago that allowed "down by contact" rulings on the field to be subject to replay review, provided there was a simultaneous recovery of the loose ball by the defense.

Another proposed change would eliminate a re-kick on a botched onside attempt, such as one that goes out of bounds with no one recovering the ball. Currently, the kicking team gets to move back 5 yards and re-kick once as long as the botched onside attempt is not within the last five minutes of the game. The new rule would not allow for a re-kick the entire contest.

This situation arose last season in Green Bay's game against Indianapolis, when the Packers tried an onside kick in the first quarter after taking a 3-0 lead on the opening possession. Mason Crosby's onside attempt went out of bounds, and the Packers were penalized 5 yards and re-kicked, with Crosby kicking the ball deep. The new rule, applied in this instance, would allow the Colts to take the ball at the spot it went out of bounds on the onside attempt, which was the Green Bay 45-yard line.

One other proposed change would be to the league's bylaws regarding draft positioning. Currently, teams positioned 21st through 32nd in the draft order - the 12 teams that qualify for the postseason - have their position determined by their regular-season record (the same as teams positioned 1-20), except for the two Super Bowl participants, who take the final two spots, with the Super Bowl winner getting spot No. 32.

The change, which if approved would take effect with the 2010 Draft, would have postseason teams' draft positions determined by how far they advance in the playoffs, so as to avoid situations like those in the upcoming draft, where the San Diego Chargers (who finished the regular season 8-8) are selecting 16th, 11 spots ahead of the Indianapolis Colts (12-4, 27th), even though the Chargers beat the Colts in the postseason. Or Philadelphia (9-6-1) picking 21st, ahead of both Minnesota (10-6, 22nd) and the N.Y. Giants (12-4, 29th), two teams the Eagles knocked out of the playoffs.

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