Every year, the NFL's league meetings give us plenty to discuss, from the amusing to the serious. This year, Bill Belichick was his usual charming self, Ron Rivera talked about millennials and their feelings, and we really don't know what Jeff Fisher is doing in the coaches' photo. And while those are all fun to talk about, some weighty changes came out of these meetings as well, including several new rules that emphasize player safety.
1. Rules changes primarily focus on player safety.
Out of 19 proposed rule changes, the league passed nine new rules for the coming season. (Sadly, none of the amended rules clarify what is or isn't a catch.) A couple of the key rule changes address safety issues, such as expanding horse collar tackles and eliminating chop blocks.
The complete list of permanent rule changes is below.
- Permanently move the line of scrimmage for Try kicks to the defensive team's 15-yard line, and allows the defense to return any missed Try.
- Permits the offensive and defensive play callers on the coaching staffs to use the coach-to-player communication system regardless of whether they are on the field or in the coaches' booth.
- Makes all chop blocks illegal.
- Expands the horse collar rule to include when a defender grabs the jersey at the name plate or above and pulls a runner toward the ground.
- Makes it a foul for delay of game when a team attempts to call a timeout when it is not permitted to do so.
- Eliminates the 5-yard penalty for an eligible receiver illegally touching a forward pass after being out of bounds and re-establishing himself inbounds, and makes it a loss of down.
- Eliminates multiple spots of enforcement for a double foul after a change of possession.
The league will also test out two rules on a one-year basis. The first received the most attention: players will be ejected if they commit two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that fit certain criteria. Players can be ejected if their two penalties include throwing punches or forearms at an opponent or attempting to kick them, even if no contact is made. Any abusive or threatening language directed at anyone on the field is included, and baiting or taunting is also covered by this rule change.
Players and coaches around the league have voiced objections to the ejection rule. Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said it's unnecessary, since officials already have the authority to eject players. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll doesn't like it, and neither does Broncos safety T.J. Ward, who was ejected last season for punching Jeremy Maclin.
According to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher was an advocate for the rule change.
"I think Jeff Fisher said it the best, he started off the meeting this morning saying, listen, as coaches we're responsible for making sure we coach our players, control our players, and sportsmanship is a key component of that," Goodell said. "Sportsmanship is important to us. It's important to our players, it's important to our teams, and it's important to our fans."
The NFL also decided to move the line of scrimmage after a touchback to the 25-yard line for kickoffs for this coming season. The hope is this will discourage teams from running the ball out of the end zone, since kick returns are some of the most dangerous plays in football. But there's still concern the rule change will result in more kickoff returns, rather than fewer.
2. The league didn't adopt any rule amendments proposed by teams.
None of the 10 team proposals passed, including a perfectly sensible recommendation from Washington to eliminate overtime in preseason contests.
The Ravens suggested several rule changes, and a proposal to expand instant replay has been tabled until the next round of league meetings in May. It's possible that the competition committee will rewrite the proposed change and submit it themselves.
"We think there is some merit to the proposal," Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay said. "We're going to look at that. We're going to meet as a committee. We're going to talk to the membership and we're going to look at trying to submit a proposal off of Baltimore's that rewrites the rule and rewrites the language and submit in May for a vote."
If passed in May, the expansion would make all but eight types of plays reviewable. Those eight, which include pass interference, holding and illegal contact, are classified as judgment calls and would not be reviewable.
3. Injured reserve designation has been tweaked.
The NFL also passed a bylaw amendment to modify the way teams handle placing players on injured reserve with a designation to return. Previously, a player had to be designated for return at the time he was placed on injured reserve, and that player would be eligible to return to practice after six weeks and could return to the game day lineup two weeks after returning to practice.
That approach presents some challenges for teams. It's sometimes difficult to anticipate how rehab will go and if that player will truly be ready to return to practice after the mandated period on injured reserve. It's also impossible to predict injuries to other players, and once a team's return designation was used, it was gone for the season.
The bylaw change will allow teams to designate any player to return to practice after he has spent six weeks on injured reserve. Teams can still only designate one player for return, however, and they don't have to make that determination until the player is ready and eligible to return to practice. That player is still eligible to return to the lineup two weeks after coming back to practice.
4. The New England Patriots aren't getting their DeflateGate draft picks back.
Roger Goodell confirmed that he received Patriots owner Robert Kraft's letter about the DeflateGate punishment, but the commissioner said that nothing has changed.
"I did receive the letter from Robert a few weeks back. I also responded to him two weeks ago and told him that I considered his views," Goodell said. "I didn't think there was any new information in there that would cause us to alter the discipline, and so there will be no changes to the discipline."
The Patriots were stripped of their first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017 and fined $1 million after the league concluded its investigation.
5. The Atlanta Falcons won't face league discipline for asking a draft prospect about his sexual orientation.
Goodell said he has spoken with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, as well as Marquand Manuel, the defensive backs coach who posed the inappropriate and illegal question to former Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple. Goodell was satisfied with the action taken by the Falcons to resolve the problem, and there will be no further league discipline applied.
The Falcons had a league-approved counselor come and talk to the coaching staff about handling conversations with prospects in an appropriate way. Manuel also had a one-on-one meeting with the counselor and issued a personal apology via a team release.
"I think the Falcons, as an organization, and Dan Quinn as a head coach, and the coach who was involved, have all taken ownership of this issue, recognized the mistake that was made, have been very forthcoming and have taken the appropriate steps to educate everyone," Goodell said. "I don't see any further steps at the league level at this point."
The next round of league meetings will be held May 23-25 in Charlotte, N.C.