NFL owners made another round of rule changes on Wednesday morning, passing five of seven possible changes. Six bylaw changes also came before owners for a vote, but five of the six were tabled for further study with a vote coming in May.
The new rules continue the league's dance with making the game safer and more competitive while maintaining traces of the violence that makes the sport unique. However, competition outweighed safety in this round of changes, and those changes should give fans something to grumble about right away. The potential changes to the bylaws could have the most impact, especially if the league moves to up its own hot stove action by pushing the trade deadline back by two weeks.
Horse collar tackle exemption does not pass: Mention the words "player safety" to some NFL fans and you are liable to touch a nerve and set off a rant about the good old days of leather helmets. Regardless of where you come down on the equitable distribution of scoring and hitting, recent rule changes have provided players more protections. That made the owners' decision not to remove the exemption that allows defenders to bring down a quarterback in the pocket with a horse collar tackle surprising.
Quarterbacks are among the most protected players in the league, and highest paid. Many thought that the competition committee would propose even more protections for quarterback safety. So why did owners opt to pass on affording them one more safeguard?
"We watched the tape and didn't feel that was a change that was also fair to the defender," competition committee chairman Rich McKay explained. "The defender in the pocket is fighting off an offensive player, grabbing and just trying to do everything he can."
Chalk one up for the defense. I have no doubt that pass rushers will stop and think to themselves, "I might as well go ahead and serve this suspension for a bogus roughing the passer call; Goodell took care of me with that whole horse collar thing last March."
Replay remains on the field, but turnovers now included: The other rule change rejected by owners was a proposal submitted by the Buffalo Bills to take video reviews out of the hands of the ref on the field and send it upstairs to the officials in the booth. On the surface, it seems like that rule would simplify things, perhaps even sawing off a few minutes of game time with all the back and forth refs and coaches have to do. The rumor mill said that teams had concerns about replay officials being less experienced than refs, and so the resolution did not pass.
Starting in 2012 turnovers will be subject to automatic video review, similar to what the league did with scoring plays last year. Don't worry, that change is not expected to make the games last longer, McKay said.
"When you see it, it feels like it would slow the game down because you are taking what would be a challenge and taking it upstairs for confirmation," McKay said. "We didn't see that in the scoring plays, and we think in the turnovers, it will have the same effect."
Regular season overtime rules change: A change to the overtime rules is likely to make games run longer, at least overtime games. Gone are the days where winning the coin flip nearly guaranteed a win, with a team needing only to put the ball in field goal range. The new overtime rules will work just like the overtime rules in the playoffs.
Expanding the crackback block rules: The only change to the rules regarding player safety was an expansion of the crackback block rules. Now, defenseless players are protected from hits upstairs, affording their heads and necks the same level of protection as their knees.
Given the league's concern over concussions, modifying crackback blocks makes sense. The trick here is enforcement. Every officiating crew is going to call this one a little differently. To call this one fairly and accurately, refs are going to have to closely see where players get hit, since the rule shrinks the legal area of contact. Just how much variation in calling or not calling crackback blocks will determine the level of frustrations fans and teams experience.
NFL trade deadline proposal tabled until May: The one hallmark of the NFL trade deadline over the years was the fact that it was nothing like baseball's trade deadline period. Teams rarely, if ever, made deals, and when they did it was mostly just to swap spare parts and role players. That could be changing in 2012 if owners approve a proposal to move the trade deadline back from Week 6 to Week 8.
Explaining the proposed changes ahead of the owners meeting, McKay acknowledged that the league expects more trading in the spring and ahead of the deadline. Pushing back the deadline would allow teams more time to assess needs and hammer out deals.
Just how popular will more trading be? Every year interest in the NFL draft and free agency grows exponentially. Adding a third act in the NFL's hot stove drama in the fall might break the Internet.
Injured reserve exemption: The other big ticket item from the tabled bylaw changes is offering teams an injured reserve exemption. Under the current rules, if a player is hurt in the preseason or early in the season, their year is finished if a team puts them on IR, even if they could return in the dwindling weeks of the season, like say for a playoff push.
Under the proposed bylaw change, which owners will vote on in May, teams could designate one player to return after a minimum of eight weeks. It's a smart change that would help make sure premium players, premium draws, are not off the field for an entire season. In truth, the league should change its IR rules to allow this for all players, rather than just one designated player under the current proposal. It could make the season's end more interesting as teams battling for a playoff spot get reinforcements back into the mix. For teams that have already been eliminated from the hunt, having injured players return could at least make those late season games more competitive.
Roster changes will be voted on in May: Another pair of proposed bylaw changes could also have an impact on a team's roster. One would grant one weekly exemption for a player with a concussion. Another would bump up the offseason roster limit from 80 to 90 players, but undrafted rookies would then count toward that limit.
The only bylaw change that passed was one modifying roster rules for teams playing on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The others will get a further look in May, after the league addresses some concerns and suggestions made about the others. The league also wants them blessed by the union before passing them.
"No, there were some really good ideas and suggestions," McKay said. "There is not necessarily resistance. We have just got to work on the language a little bit. They do not need to be passed today. We will pass them in May, we will deal with them and we will show them to the union and do all the normal steps."
For more on the NFL rules and bylaws changes, visit this StoryStream.