Assuming the rest of the NFL's owners will in an accommodating mood to put through the various rules changes the league's competition committee has recommended, player safety will take a front seat if there is a 2011 season.
Among the changes the owners will vote on in their meeting next week are revisions in kickoff rules that outlaw blocking wedges of any kind. Also, flagrant violent hits on defenseless players can now be penalized with suspensions instead of mere fines.
Committee chairman Rich McKay said the committee has proposed a rewrite of the defenseless player rule, which will now be placed under its own article under the Unnecessary Roughness umbrella.
A defenseless player will be defined by eight criteria:
*The quarterback or player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;
*The receiver attempting to catch a pass, which includes the receiver who hasn't completed a catch or had time to protect himself;
*A runner who's already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;
*A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;
*A player on the ground at the end of a play;
*A kicker or punter during the kick or during the return;
*A quarterback at any time after a change of possession;
*A player who receives a blindside block.
The rule also prohibits illegal launching.
Violating the rule could lead to suspension for multiple offenders.
"If there are repeat offenders or flagrant violators, we are going to hold them aggressively accountable, even if it means suspension -- because some folks hold the view that suspension is the real messenger in terms of seriousness of enforcement," NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson said. "So we hope we don't get there, but everyone is going to be on notice. If we have some of the hits that we had this year, and particularly if it is a repeat offender, that person, that club, and those coaches should know that having that person sit out for a game or multiple games in certain circumstances is very much on the table."
A rule like that would especially police a known repeater like Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, who was fined $75,000 last year for just one of those calls.
A second rules change involves prohibiting blocking wedges of any kind on kickoffs. The wedge was knocked down to two in 2009, but now no players may form a wedge. The spot of kickoff would also be moved to the 35 instead of the 30, and no player except the kicker would be able to line up more than five yards behind the ball. Touchbacks on kickoffs only would be brought out to the 25.
That rule is designed to cut down on the catastrophic concussions and other injuries that have been occurring on kickoffs.
"The injury rate on the kickoff remains a real concern for us and for the players and for the Coaches Subcommittee, and so we will propose what I think would be a pretty major change to the play itself," McKay said.
An instant replay modification would have the upstairs assistant review every scoring play without necessity of a coach's challenge, regardless of time of game. The present rule calls for assistant reviews only in the last two minutes of each half.