Transcript of Thursday's conference call between reporters and Rich McKay (NFL Competition Committee chairman, Atlanta Falcons president & CEO), Ray Anderson (NFL executive vice president of football operations) and Jeff Fisher (St. Louis Rams head coach and Competition Committee member)...
Rich McKay: As we have done in years past, we’ll go through the rules. We’ve got six proposals this year and then there are three bylaws. The committee met for 12 days between Indianapolis and Naples, but the process always starts the same, which is a survey that we give to all of the clubs; ask them a lot of questions; ask them about potential rule proposals; and likewise, get their input on any ideas they may have. That was very productive for us. We also meet with the NFLPA and a number of players in Indianapolis. We got some of the ideas there and we get their ideas. In fact, there is a rule proposal that they were clearly focused on this year along with the coaches subcommittee. The ideas can come from anywhere. We’re just the ones that try to sort them out and get them in written form.
The primary focus of our committee and for the league for that matter with respect to the field, is first and foremost player safety and second, maintaining competitive balance. With respect to player safety, we have three player safety rule changes that we’ll propose this year. I always like to start by putting those into context. In 2011, the membership voted to change the kickoff rule from the 30 to the 35 thus reducing the number of kickoff returns. What is nice is that there was a lot of scrutiny given to that rule change. There was a lot of concern that it would hurt the quality of the game, might affect field position and a major concern that it would affect scoring. I think the nice thing is that in 2012, one of the most memorable plays of the year was the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl and scoring this year at 45.5 points per game. 45.5 points per game is the highest since 1965 and the fourth highest in NFL history. A lot of credit goes to our coaches and our players who always seem to do a really good job of dealing with the evolution of our rules as they are implemented for player safety purposes.
On the competitive balance side, I think our results speak for themselves. This year, the Ravens were our eighth different Super Bowl champion in the last 10 years. One fact that we like is that in the last five years, we’ve had 24 different division champions and in the last five years, we’ve had 26 different teams qualify for the playoffs. Competitive balance from our perspective is at a very good place when it comes to the National Football League.
Our rules proposals can come from different areas: one is player safety; two is we need to maintain a level playing field and have to change a rule for that; three is the first one we’re going to address which is to address a new tactic or anomaly that appeared and that we didn’t contemplate in the rule book.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 1 is an instant replay proposal. It is no real suggestion to change or expand the system as much as dealing with an anomaly that showed up last year and ended up with a result that I don’t know any of us were comfortable with. The proposal in essence is going to tie the throwing of the challenge flag to a timeout. If you win the challenge, obviously, you get the timeout back. If you weren’t allowed to challenge, you don’t get the timeout back, but the play itself is still reviewable. If you challenge a play and you did not have any timeouts at that point, then you would be assessed a 15-yard penalty. The play would still be reviewable. We’re trying to deal with a result that we thought was a result this year that did not appear on its face to have the punishment meet the crime. We’re trying to right that.
Another tweak will be at the end of the rule. We’re going to try to make the ruling of an incomplete pass reviewable all the way through the fumble because what typically happened is when there is an incomplete pass ruling on the field, if it was reviewed and it was determined that the player actually caught the pass and then fumbled, the rule did not provide for recovery by the defense. In essence, it put the defense at a disadvantage. We’ll offer up an amendment that would allow that to be reviewable. That’s the change in instant replay. No real expansion of the system itself this year other than those tweaks.
Jeff Fisher: Player Rule Proposal No. 2 is the first of the three player-safety-related proposals. Proposal No. 2 originated from the committees meeting with the coaches’ subcommittee and the players association. They both made presentations and as a result, the rule proposal is as follows: we’re going to add restrictions to the PAT rush and Field Goal rush teams from an alignment standpoint. Specifically, we’re going to require that no more than six defensive players, "Team B" players, be permitted to align on either side of the snapper. They will no longer permit defense rush players, "Team B" players, to push their teammates through the gaps and overload. This proposal also creates a situation where the snapper now becomes a defenseless player and he gets helmet-to-helmet protection. The last aspect of this rule eliminates the low, attack block by both rush teams, the PAT and the Field Goal rush team. We looked at a lot of tape. There were some injuries that took place. We feel like even with this potential change, you’ll still have opportunities to affect the kick and still potentially block those kicks.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 3 basically changes our tuck rule so that it is a fumble if the player loses possession as he attempts to bring the ball back to his body. Obviously, if the passer loses control of the ball as the arm is moving forward, it will still be an incomplete pass, but we now say if in the passing motion he attempts to bring the ball back to his body, even if he completes the tuck, and loses the ball in an attempt to bring the ball back to his body, it will be a fumble. The officials on the field now are ruling that it is a fumble and the plays are going to review. We are going to change this to clean this up and eliminate the tuck rule, so to speak.
McKay: Player Rule Proposal No. 4 is just an administrative clean up allowing the tight ends and the H-backs to legally wear numbers 40-49. Before, they were limited to 80-89. We are just trying to give them a little more leeway given how many teams are using H-backs.
Fisher: Playing Rule Proposal No. 5 is the second of the player safety proposals. Currently, we allow offensive players to block back towards their end line low in the tackle box. It is a foul if they are outside the tackle box and they block low. We refer to it as the "peel-back" block. This proposal will make it a foul if they block low even if they are in the tackle box. Basically to simplify things, it is no longer permissible to block low in the peel-backs any place on the field.
McKay: Playing Rule Proposal No. 6 is the last of our rule proposals and is a player safety rule proposal that has taken us a little while to develop and has had a lot of input from our medical consultants for sure. Here is how the rule reads:
"Contact with the Crown of the Helmet: It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside of the tackle box. Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul."
This is a pure and simple player safety rule proposal first and foremost. That is the way we look at it. We really think the time has come that we need to address the situation in space when a runner or a tackler has a choice as to how they are going to approach the opponent. We are going to say that you can’t make that choice ducking your head and delivering a blow, a forcible blow, with the top crown of your helmet. We are trying to protect the runner or the tackler from himself in that instance. We are looking for the obvious fouls in this one. We did not put in the language that says, "You should err on the side of player safety and throw the flag." We realize this is a major change for players and coaches so we want the obvious foul. There are many instances in which there is incidental contact with players as they begin to either get small, go out of bounds or whatever they may do. We are looking for the obvious foul and the foul where the player decides to lower his head and deliver a forcible hit with the top crown of his helmet. We are focused on the open field. That is why we moved it outside of the tackle box. That will be our Playing Rule Proposal No. 6.
With respect to the bylaws, I will quickly go through them. There is not great substance in these Bylaw Proposals. They are really cleanups, one would say.
Bylaw Proposal No. 1 says the waiver period is now going to be such that if you claim a player you must now only keep him on your roster for one day. Before, it was two days. That two-day requirement was in there because of the salary cap ramifications of claiming a player, which are no longer applicable. We will propose that we go back to a one-day period.
Bylaw Proposal No. 2 is an adjustment to what we call our "physically unable to perform status." Our rule currently says that if you put a person on PUP reserve, you carry him into the season and you have the choice to activate him after you begin to practice that player. You can only begin to practice that player in Weeks 6-9. If you do not play him by then at Week 9, he reverts back to injured reserve. This will give you more flexibility and allow you to practice him in Weeks 6-11. You can choose when your three-week practice window may open in that window. It gives the team more flexibility.
Bylaw Proposal No. 3 is a repeat of what we did last year, moving the cutdown date [to a 53-man roster] and having a Friday night cutdown date as opposed to Saturday in contemplation of another Wednesday night Kickoff Game, which I don’t think has been determined. We needed to provide that flexibility so we will again make that proposal. That is Bylaw Proposal No. 3.
Those are our six Playing Rule Proposals and our three Bylaw Proposals.
Anderson: I will add a couple of points of emphasis.
The first will be this year there will be mandatory thigh and knee pads in all NFL games. The rule was passed last year. We provided one year to really develop and get folks mentally ready for it. This is the year. In 2013, thigh and knee pads will be mandatory equipment. The league office will provide videos to players during the offseason to give them examples of pads that will conform. We will make sure that we explain how the rule will be enforced. Beginning with the 2013 preseason’s first game, that enforcement will begin. During the pregame period, a uniform inspector, which you know we already have and have had for many years, will conduct random checks of players to ensure they are wearing the padding. The inspections may take place in the locker room, on the playing field or any other area of the stadium where inspections can be made. Once the game begins, the uniform inspectors will have access to the sidelines to continue to inspect. If a player is caught not wearing the thigh and knee pads or is not wearing appropriate thigh and knee pads, he will be given an opportunity to comply. He will not be permitted in the game until he does comply. If there is a continual refusal to comply, he simply will not be allowed in the game. If there is a real adamant resistance to complying, he may be subject to additional discipline. That will be the enforcement.
Another item that got some attention – we will certainly make it a point of emphasis – is our field maintenance. Under our field maintenance certification program, the league office will take a much more proactive and aggressive position. Under our current rules and best practices, which we established a couple of years ago, we can make sure that if at any time the league office investigators determine that a stadium is not up to NFL quality, not safe or doesn’t meet our competitive standards, then this department will have the ability to require the club to remedy the situation immediately at the club’s expense. We will make sure safety is very clear in terms of our field surfaces.
In terms of points of emphasis related to player safety, those are two key items.
On Playing Rule Proposal No. 6 and if it is the first rule limiting a runner’s contact with a defender...
McKay: No, I would say we have some rules [limiting contact]. We still have a rule on the use of the facemask. A runner can’t use the facemask to gain an advantage over a defender. I would say this is the first rule where we have dealt with players other than those in a defenseless category that we have limited what they can do to an opponent in space such as this and it is specific to a runner. You may be right. You might catch yourself in the way that you overstated it, but we do think you could definitely call it the first of its kind in the way that we are trying to regulate open space.
On whether there were particular plays that led to the committee proposing this rule change...
McKay: “There are many of them. I wouldn’t say there was one; I would say there were many. I would go back to the start of this discussion [which] started a few years ago. It has really been our medical people which have pushed us to realize where injuries occur outside of the tackle box, both on running plays and on passing plays. In pass plays, we feel like we’ve got good regulation in respect to the defenseless players. On run plays we really don’t have that type of regulation. We just felt like this was the place to begin. We went through the tape. We have pretty clear tape of what those violations would be, and we have pretty clear tape of what those violations would not be.”
On what made the committee address the tuck rule at this time and not sooner...
McKay: Great question. We have talked about this for too many years and we’ve always struggled with the answer. I think this year we were swayed by the officials themselves when they met with us in Indianapolis. They said they’re very comfortable with this change. This change fits a little more into how college football calls it. Then we went through the calls this year and on tape. What is happening is the great majority of these are called fumbles, and appropriately called fumbles. Because of the written rule of how the tuck rule was written, they go into replay and they look at it and under the rule, the tuck had not been completed so it has to be reversed from what is a fumble. We just felt like with the officials being more comfortable and being almost assertive that they think they can call it and they understand when a passer lost control of the ball and still trying to throw it versus trying to begin to tuck the ball, we felt more comfortable in proposing the rule. We think this is another example where the tape we’re going to show is pretty clear on how this is going to be officiated.
Fisher: We are reviewing turnovers now [by rule]. All of these plays are going upstairs for review as opposed to a couple years ago when it was left to the coaches to challenge. We’re getting most of these right in replay. It’s an easier play to officiate with the replay.
On whether there will be more offsetting penalties due to ball carriers lowering their heads to make helmet-to-helmet contact with defenders...
McKay: There will certainly be plays where that can occur. I think we watched an awful lot of tape and there were not as many as you would think. In some instances you will see the defender or the ball carrier really be the one to lower his head and begin to initiate contact when the other player is just reacting and trying to defend himself. That’s why it has to be the obvious call. You have to see the initiator. You have to see the head down. You have to see the crown of the helmet hit. But could there be offsetting? Yes.
On if the committee has considered making changes to field goal and extra point procedures as kickers have become more accurate in recent years...
McKay: We have talked about it for a number of years. It was not really one that we talked about as much this year except in the context of the rule proposal that Jeff Fisher talked about on PATs and field goals from a player safety standpoint. I think that we all recognize how accurate the field goal kickers have been for the last five years. If you take out the 50-yard-plus attempts, you get very, very accurate [results]. You look at the other side of the equation, and I think the feel of the offense is "Hey, we earned the points so don’t make it harder on us." In talking about giving different points for different lengths of field goals, we’ve always fought that idea because of the idea of "Why, if I drive myself down to the 10-yard line and I’ve done such a good job on offense, should I get less points than the guy who tries the 50-yarder and didn’t get as many offensive yards?" That conflict has always been there for us. As far as narrowing the goalpost, we did ask that question this year in the survey and got very little support for it.
On if there are any proposals about replacing the field turf in Washington and making specific recommendations on the type of turf in a specific stadium...
Anderson: No. There have not been any specific proposals and clubs are really given the option and the prerogative to pick their surfaces. There are no proposals that would require them to change surfaces. This proposal is geared toward making sure that everyone understands that going forward the league will take a more active role in making sure that whatever surface is chosen that the standards are vigorously upheld.
On how as a coach you get your players not to hit helmet-to-helmet in the open field...
Fisher: As Rich said, we’ve got a lot of tape of fouls with respect to this proposal and we’ve got tape of great tackles and great runs and things like that. The ball carrier is still going to be permitted to lower his shoulder and the head is also going to come down to protect the football. We’re not taking that part of the run out of the play. We’re saying that in space, one-on-one, head-up. We’re not going to allow you to load up and use the crown of your helmet. It’s an obvious thing that I don’t feel – nor did Marvin (Lewis) and some others (coaches) that we’ve talked to – we don’t feel like it is going to be difficult to explain it and to coach it. We’ve been teaching the young players and the youth football organizations to see what you hit for years. We’re getting to a point now that we feel like with this rule proposal that we can avoid dangerous situations on the field by raising awareness to it and also by penalizing it and fining it.
On keeping an eye on receivers not wearing the thigh and knee pads when entering the game...
Fisher: It’s mandatory. If they are on the field without the pads, they will be told to leave. We are going to start the process late in the offseason and into camps. The league has done a great job of putting together many options as far as what the players can wear and can’t wear. The players will be able to test them out. It’s the skilled people, perimeter players for the most part that are not wearing those pads.
On the 15-yard penalty going away and it being just a timeout on the red flag proposal...
McKay: If they have a timeout, yes. In essence, you’ve married the throwing of the flag with the timeout. You’ve married the two. You throw the flag, you’ve used a timeout. You win the challenge, you get the timeout back. You are not allowed to challenge, you still lose the timeout.
What if you have no challenges left...
McKay: You throw the flag, it is a 15-yard penalty.
On the 15-yard penalty being when you don’t have a red flag left to use...
McKay: No, or if you don’t have a timeout to use.
On it only being a 15-yard penalty if you do not have any timeouts or any challenges and in any case, the play will still be reviewed:
McKay: That’s correct.
On why they resisted strengthening the rule around low blocks on defensive players...
McKay: We did put a proposal in with respect to peel back inside the tackle box because we saw some plays that we really thought should be eliminated. We brought active and retired players in and talked low blocks from start to finish. Whether it was the chop block, the cut block in open field, we went through all of that with them. They were all very consistent: "We can play the block. We can feel it coming. It’s not a concern." Once we eliminated the two-player-removed rule a number of years ago — which use to say that the tight end could block on the nose tackle, who was being blocked by the center — when we removed those types of two-player blocks, they feel like they can play the play. When we said that you cannot block from the back, meaning you can’t clip, they feel very comfortable with it. We went through it from start to finish with them because we had put out in the survey the idea that the chop block was under consideration and I think the players and the coaches — defensive line and offensive line coaches — convinced us otherwise.
On if protecting quarterbacks was a concern when considering low blocks...
McKay: Low blocks and cut blocking has always been a necessity based on size. It is that ability to equalize. Whether it’s the big man on the little man in space, or whether it’s the little man on the big man when he is in close quarters. That has always been a method that’s been used. We didn’t see tape, or injury data that told us it should be changed.
On 2012 kickoff return injuries...
McKay: The overall numbers are virtually identical to the year before. If you take 2010 as a base and then look at 2011 and 2012, we are down 40 percent per year on concussions. Our overall injury rate is lower because there are fewer returns. We saw the same effect in college. We looked at their numbers, which are almost more dramatic in their decline of injuries than ours. We were pretty comfortable after we looked at the injury numbers and looked at the tape. The play, as it now stands, is a play that is appropriate for our game.
Fisher: We went back last year and made the point that there were no concussions the previous year on touchbacks. This year, in our study, we discovered that we had four concussions on touchbacks this year. We think that we can eliminate that through coaching because the cover guys are not necessarily completely reading the return. They are taking their eyes deep in the end zone to see if the ball is going to be brought out because they are coming out nine yards deep. They are losing perspective and their eyes are going in a different direction than they should be, they are getting caught off-guard, and are getting hit. We think, from a coaching standpoint, we can emphasize that once we get together with the head coaches and special team coaches to coach the guys to read the return and don’t just assume it’s a touchback. Make sure you finish the play appropriately.
On the penalties for the player safety rules...
McKay: Proposed Rule 6 is a 15-yard penalty, Proposed Rule 5 is a 15-yard penalty and Proposed Rule 2 is a 15-yard penalty.
On if the collision between Bernard Pollard and Stevan Ridley in the 2012 AFC Championship Game would have been a penalty under Proposed Rule 6...
McKay: No. Neither player, in our mind, initiated contact and delivered a blow with the top crown of his helmet. You can argue that in super slow-motion that the running back did, but in our case, we looked at that play and said that was one where you don’t see a man-on-man – meaning head up play – and one player ducking his head and delivering a blow with the top crown of his helmet. That is a close play and there will be plenty of those.
On if it is a reviewable play...
McKay: No, it is not.