PHOENIX — Just before St. Louis Rams Coach Jeff Fisher stepped into a conference center at the plush Arizona Biltmore resort Wednesday to speak about a new player safety rule ratified by NFL team owners, he stood outside talking on his phone to Eddie George, his former running back with the Tennessee Titans.
As a runner, George was known for his bruising style and, according to Fisher, he expressed concerns about the newly approved rule. The measure makes it illegal for a ballcarrier to lower his head and use the crown of his helmet to initiate forcible contact with a defender in the open field.
“Eddie George said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” said Fisher, a member of the league’s competition committee. “He took the position that this is going to be a difficult thing to enforce and a difficult way to play this game. After a 15-minute conversation, he changed his mind and said, ‘That makes sense. I would be in favor of that.’ ”
So it goes for Fisher, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the sport’s other leaders, who say they’re trying to change the way the game is played amid growing evidence of long-term health problems — brain injuries in particular — from playing football. Often skepticism about new safety initiatives comes from the very players the rules are designed to protect, and from former players and fans who fret that the measures are changing the sport too dramatically.
Take former Redskin Clinton Portis’s assertion after the new rule passed that “they’re trying to protect so much in the game, that you might as well turn it into flag football.” Hall of Famer Earl Campbell, a famously bruising running back in the 1970s and ’80s, made a similar comparison. Both men suffered significant injuries playing football.
Goodell contends, however, that “these decisions are not made in isolation. They are made with a lot of input. . . . They spend a lot of time going through this and they come back with recommendations of techniques that they think can improve the game but, more importantly, improve safety. We have demonstrated that the game is safer and the game is better. We can do both of those.”
Goodell has spoken in recent years about attempting to change the culture of pro football when it comes to player concussions. League leaders say they believe substantial progress has been made. But more, they say, remains to be done.
“The game has gotten safer over time,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee. “Where we have really focused is on the big hits, the open field hits and hits where players truly can’t defend themselves.. . . It doesn’t mean we can’t do more and doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do more in the future. But right now, we feel pretty comfortable where the game is.”
The latest changes come with the NFL facing litigation on behalf of thousands of former players about the effects of concussions, and after the NFL Players Association announced that players are generally dissatisfied with the health care provided by team physicians. A recent examination by The Washington Post revealed an NFL medical system with inconsistent treatment standards and some doctors who depart from best medical practices and safety norms.
They also were adopted at a time when the long-term viability of the sport is questioned by some. President Obama told the the New Republic in January that he’s “a big football fan” but if he had a son, he’d “have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
The highest-profile rule change ratified by the owners makes it a 15-yard penalty whenever a runner or a defender initiates a forcible blow outside the tackle box (the area between the two offensive tackles) and more than three yards down the field.
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte took to Twitter last weekend to sharply criticize the proposal, writing that it “might be the most absurd suggestion of a rule change I’ve ever heard of” and suggesting it would prevent a runner from protecting himself. After the rule was ratified by the owners, Forte wrote that the “last time I checked football was a contact sport.”
Some coaches questioned whether the rule could be properly enforced by game officials. But supporters of the measure called it a sensible attempt to force players to use their shoulders instead of their heads the way they’ve been taught since youth football. The measure was approved by the owners, 31-1, with only the Cincinnati Bengals voting against it.
“I don’t remember a player safety proposal that we made that we didn’t, in some way, pass,” McKay said.
In recent years, the league has changed its procedures for players who suffer concussions, requiring that any player with concussion symptoms be removed from a game or practice. He is ineligible to return until he is cleared by an independent neurologist.
The NFL also has banned hits to the head of players in “defenseless positions,” such as a quarterback delivering a pass or a receiver making a catch. The league changed its rules on kickoffs, which officials consider a particularly dangerous play, to increase touchbacks and reduce the number of kicks returned.
An analysis released last August by a consulting firm associated with the union found that concussions suffered by NFL players dropped slightly from 270 in the 2010 season to 266 in the 2011 season. That was mostly attributable, according to the analysis, to a sharp decline in concussions suffered on kickoffs, from 35 in the 2010 season to 20 in the 2011 season.
The sport’s leaders say they will seek to make equipment safer in the future. They also talk about possibly making the game safer through technology. In 2013, all NFL teams’ in-game concussion evaluations will be conducted by medical personnel using the league’s concussion-assessment tool loaded onto iPads. The collective bargaining agreement between the league and union includes funding for medical research, much of which will be devoted to the study of brain injuries.
More rule changes are likely. There has been talk that kickoffs might be eliminated entirely at some point. Goodell floated the idea in a December issue of Time magazine of giving a team that scores a touchdown possession of the ball for a fourth-and-15 play at its 30-yard line; it could punt the ball to its opponent or, when circumstances warrant, try for a first down.
Not all of the changes are aimed at head injuries. The owners also voted last week to expand a ban on blind-side “peel-back” blocks below the waist. The league says it will require all players to wear knee and thigh pads during games in the 2013 season.
The players’ union has offered some resistance to the mandatory pads rule. But the union has its own safety initiatives and the two sides are not always at odds. Goodell said that “a lot of the focus we had this year was actually generated by proposals from the players.”
Fisher said the way the game is played is changing.
“From a coaching standpoint,” Fisher said, “when a rule goes in or when a rule is modified, we take it. We run with it. And you actually see habits changing on the field.”