BOCA RATON, Fla. — NFL owners approved proposals Wednesday to automatically eject any player penalized twice for unsportsmanlike conduct in the same game and to move the spot of the football to the 25-yard line for touchbacks on kickoffs.
The measures will go into effect next season.
The owners ratified the proposals, both endorsed by the NFL’s competition committee, on the final day of the annual league meeting.
Coaches had raised objections Tuesday to both measures. But owners moved quickly Wednesday to ratify the proposals, ending their meeting after a little more than an hour.
The automatic ejection and touchback proposals were approved by the owners on a one-year basis. So they will be up for review following the 2016 season.
A proposal by the Baltimore Ravens to expand the list of plays subject to instant replay review was tabled by the owners for further discussion. The owners meet again in May.
The owners on Tuesday ratified proposals to ban the chop block and to make the longer extra point, put into effect last season, a permanent rule.
The automatic ejection proposal originated last month with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who mentioned it during his annual state-of-the-league news conference two days before the Super Bowl. The rule-making competition committee then refined it to include only unsportsmanlike conduct penalties related to punching, kicking or throwing a forearm at an opponent; using abusive language; or taunting.
A number of coaches expressed their opposition Tuesday when the competition committee formally presented the proposal. They were wary of the possibility of more players being ejected and warned that a player penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct once in a game then might be subject to baiting by opponents.
But the measure had the weight of both the commissioner and the competition committee behind it. And owners do not always give great consideration to the coaches’ sentiments on rule changes.
“These are spirited discussions typically in the room, and educational and productive,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee. “And I think this one on sportsmanship in general was very productive…. We’ve emphasized sportsmanship in our competition committee report since I’ve been on the competition committee at least five times, if not six. We have made it a point of emphasis every time we felt like it’s beginning to cross the line.
“We have not been able to affect sportsmanship in the way we think we need to…. We felt like we needed a rule to make sure that the players are held accountable to what we expect them to do and how we expect them to conduct themselves.”
There were 75 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties league-wide last season, according to McKay, who said: “That’s a very big number.”
Even so, only two players would have been ejected last season if the rule had been in effect. Neither New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. nor Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman would have been ejected from their December game in which they had a series of high-profile on-field confrontations, leading to Beckham later serving a one-game suspension by the league.
“Sportsmanship is important to us,” Goodell said Wednesday. “It’s important to our players. It’s important to our teams and it’s important to our fans.”
The new touchback rule applies to kickoffs, not to punts or turnovers in the end zone; the football still will be placed at the 20-yard line for touchbacks on those plays. Moving the touchback to the 25-yard line for kickoffs is designed to reduce the number of kickoffs that are returned. The competition committee regards the kickoff return as an unusually dangerous play.
Some coaches argued that kicking teams will turn to a strategy of using shorter kickoffs, with the hope of being able to tackle the returner before he reaches the 25-yard line, and the overall number of kickoff returns actually will increase. So the rule being enacted on a one-year basis will enable the NFL to evaluate that.
McKay said the competition committee plans to make a replay-related proposal to the owners at their May meeting based on the proposal by the Ravens that was tabled at this meeting. The Ravens’ proposal would have changed the replay rules regarding which plays are reviewable and which aren’t, in effect making the list about which plays would not be reviewable instead of about which plays are reviewable.
“We think there’s some merit to the proposal and we think it’s something we want to work on,” McKay said.
The competition committee consistently has held that judgment calls by the on-field officials such as holding and pass interference should not be reviewable. That is almost certain not to change. McKay said the proposal that the competition committee makes in May also will not change the current system by which each team is given two replay challenges per game and earns a third only if the first two are correct.
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