The NFL plans to toughen its enforcement of rules against illegal hits and will suspend players for the worst violations next season, a top league official said Wednesday.
The league also announced that the competition committee is proposing rule changes designed to make kickoffs safer and to expand protections for a receiver making a catch. The rule changes, which also include a proposal to make all scoring plays automatically subject to instant-replay review, must be approved by franchise owners to be enacted.
Last season, the NFL intensified its enforcement of existing rules against hits to the head of players in defenseless positions, including quarterbacks delivering passes and receivers making catches. Some players raised objections, but the crackdown on such hits will continue, said Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations.
“We need to continue in terms of disciplining repeat offenders and flagrant violators. . . When warranted, suspension will be an effective discipline for us,” Anderson said in a conference call with reporters.
Some players were given hefty fines last season for illegal hits but no suspensions were handed out. Anderson said there will be better communication with players to educate them about what is expected.
But he also said: “They need to understand we’re not relenting on this. . .We are going to hold [offenders] accountable even if it means suspension.”
Protections for a receiver making a catch would be extended. A receiver currently is protected by the defenseless-player rules while in the process of making a catch. The new rule would protect the receiver until “he can clearly protect himself or becomes a runner,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee.
On kickoffs, the ball would be kicked from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Tacklers would be prohibited from getting more than a five-yard running start before the kick. All “wedge” blocking by the receiving team would be prohibited, meaning blockers could not line up shoulder to shoulder. Touchbacks on kickoffs would put the ball at the 25-yard line, rather than the 20.
The new kickoff spot would make it easier for a kicker to put the ball well into the end zone, but the receiving team would receive better field position because of the new touchback plan.
The proposals are an attempt to reduce the number of violent, high-speed collisions that produce serious injuries on kickoffs. McKay said that under the current rules, some members of the coverage team take a running start of 10 to 15 yards before the ball is kicked. The NFL previously limited wedge blocking to no more than two players.
“The play is such and the injury data is such and the video is such,” McKay said, “that it needs revision. . . This is a change that we think needs to happen. . . The biggest thing you’re doing with this is shortening the field.”
On scoring plays, a coach no longer would need to challenge to prompt an instant-replay review. The current challenge system for replay reviews would remain in effect on non-scoring plays.
The owners are scheduled to meet next week in New Orleans at the annual league meeting. A proposal would have to be ratified by at least three-quarters of the teams to go into effect.
The competition committee made no proposals to address the catch rule that came under scrutiny last season on a play involving Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson; the playoff reseeding issue that was discussed when the Seattle Seahawks hosted a playoff game after winning their division with a losing regular season record; or possible reductions in the number of offseason practices and hitting in practices during training camp and the regular season. The hitting issue has been discussed with players as part of the sport’s labor talks.
Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of public relations, said the league plans to release next season’s schedule about mid-April, even with players currently locked out by the owners.