At the conclusion of the NFL Annual Meeting, held in New Orleans, the co-chairman of the NFL Competition Committee, Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, spoke to the media about the rules changes that were passed in a vote of the principal owners.
Four of the five playing rule proposals passed, two of which dealing with kickoffs and instant replay, passed. The other proposal dealing with the expansion of the defenseless player rule was tabled until the league’s next meeting in May.
The kickoff rule originally proposed as kicks from the 35, touchbacks at the 25, no two-man wedges and no player on the kicking team lining up more than 5 yards behind the spot of the kick was amended before it was passed. The starting yard line after a touchback will remain at the 20 and two-man wedges will still be allowed.
The other change was in the instant replay proposal. Originally, the proposal dumped the third challenge that used to be allowed if the first two challenges by a team was successful. The third challenge was retained. As previously reported, all scoring plays will be reviewed, so coaches can not use a challenge in that situation.
What follows is the transcript of McKay’s press conference March 22 after the close of the Annual Meeting. The transcript is provided by NFL PR.
This morning we voted on four rules proposals. There were five that were put forth, one of which we tabled until May and that would be Playing Rule Proposal No. 1.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 1 is the one that involved the defenseless players and a rewrite of the rule. There are a number of elements in Playing Rule Proposal No. 1. The pushback from the room was if we could separate some of those elements into separate rules and have a little bit better understanding of it. The number two pushback with that rule was there was a sea change in the way the game was played after midseason because of the emphasis by the Commissioner’s office with respect to fines. We think that the play got better after that. Our intent would be to take Playing Rule Proposal No. 1; split it up; take the unnecessary roughness part of the rule, which involved this new element of launching and create a separate rule for that; and then go back and propose the defenseless player rewrite as a separate rule. We are going to work through that as a committee in the next 30-60 days and then we will go from there. A valid point made by them: We knew when we decided the whole rule together that it was going to be a six-page rule that was going to look complicated. That was not the intent and that is not what the change really achieved.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 2 was the kickoff. That rule passed and ended up in a form we called Playing Rule Proposal No. 2A. 2A ended up having the following elements: the kickoff will be from the 35-yard line; the touchback will be at the 20-yard line; the out-of-bounds penalty will move the ball as it always has to the 40; and the rule otherwise will remain the same. The two-man wedge would be allowed; the three-man wedge would be prohibited. That is the change to the kickoff. That was rule proposal 2A. The five-yard restraining line applies. Players (on the kicking team) must line up at the 30 and no further back than that.
We had a lot of discussion but probably not as much as I thought this morning on that. We had a lot of discussion about that yesterday so maybe that is why. We were responsive to that and that is where we created 2A. The two points made yesterday were that the touchback they wanted to keep at the 20 because they didn’t want to over-incentivize the high, shorter kick with the idea of trapping them inside of the 25. The two-man wedge – I tend to agree with them because I watched all of the tape on every single kickoff injury – really was not the driving force in injuries. It just wasn’t. There were a number of committee members who thought we should propose initially every single element and then decide which elements may come out and that is how it ended up. That is Playing Rule Proposal 2A.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 3 is what I would call a modernization of instant replay. It would take away from the coaches the challenge on scoring plays and put it in the hands of the replay assistant upstairs. That replay assistant will be required to confirm every scoring play. If he doesn’t confirm the play, obviously, the referee will review the play. The ball would be held by the umpire until he has gotten the signal that the play had been confirmed.
We changed Playing Rule Proposal 3 to make it 3A. The reason we made it 3A was to make it very, very clear that the coach would not be allowed to challenge that play. I thought it was clear in 3. It became even clearer in 3A.
Today, a team proposed an amendment that would become 3B and that amendment would allow for the third challenge in the event the coach gets the first two correct. That amendment passed. For an amendment to pass, you need a majority. We voted on Rule Proposal 3B, which passed. 3B is now in place and instant replay has been changed accordingly.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 4, It is a double-foul proposal that you have a copy of. It passed as you would expect 32-0.
Playing Rule Proposal No. 5 is only an answer to some great advertiser who may have dreamed of changing the field color. It obviously passed, too.
That is where the rules are. Playing Rule Proposal No. 1 is the only one that ended up getting tabled. Otherwise, those all passed. They passed in various forms.
On penalties on kickoffs
Same rules apply . . .as the receiving team, I can make you re-kick or I can take the ball where I get it.
On the defenseless penalty – what elements seem to be questioned? Would it be quarterbacks rolling out?
No – it’s all about the receiver and the language on the receiver and the idea of expanding that coverage. It’s all about the idea that they feel like the conduct really changed after the emphasis. I think there is such a concern about the launch, and how the launch would be officiated and I think there is concern about the fact that the rule was put together as opposed to separated. So they made some valid points, and we need to go back and make sure that we’re very clear. It was interesting in that discussion that they felt like the rule as written was very, very clear and very easy to understand. That’s not the way I kind of remember the discussion from before, but I am happy to hear it. We felt like we needed to clarify it a little bit, but let us take another look at it and we’ll see if we’ll propose something else for May.
On the bringing it out to the 20 instead of the 25, the concern was the short pop-up kick:
The concern was that you would motivate people to hang the ball and try to trap it inside the 25. Which people are probably a little more risk-adverse as opposed to try to trap the inside of the 20. So that was their concern. I still believe that the idea of hanging the ball is a little harder to do today then they may remember because of the one-inch tee but our kickers are pretty good. So it was a valid point and it was one that we felt like we needed to consider and so that’s the way that proposal got written.
On modifications to kickoff proposal:
Absolutely, everybody wants the kickoff, this is going to modify the number somewhat, but everybody wants the kickoff and that’s really why we ended up with the proposal that we did.
On a vote total and particularly, the ‘No’ votes:
We didn’t vote on #1 but on #2. . .there were 5 against on the kickoff. But let me have the league office give you the actual totals.
On the double foul at the end of the play:
We wanted to create a situation last year where a foul at the end of the half was not disregarded, so it could be carried over. So a foul at the end of the first half could be carried over to the second, a personal foul, and a foul at the end of regulation could be carried over to overtime. What happened was, a nuance of the rule was that if there was a double foul – and that foul included a five and fifteen – five against the offense/fifteen against the defense – then all of a sudden instead of it carrying over, the offense actually got another play. So we got concerned about the way the rule was going to operate. And this was just one of those things where you pass a rule and then you end up with an unintended consequence that you probably hadn’t worked through yourself all the way through. That was all we were trying to do. It’s technical. . . .We usually have four or five of these a year. This year we only [had] one. I’m sure next year we’ll probably be back with a couple more. . . it means a carryover.
On replay rule change, if a player catches a pass in the back of the end zone, but the referee rules he did not get two feet down…
Challenge – it is a challenge. Or in the last two minutes of the half or the game, the guy upstairs reviews the play, confirms the play, or has the referee review it. A non-scoring play remains in the same system it was in before.
On expected percentage increase in touchbacks:
It is a good question, and it is really hard for us to figure out. I think our answer would be that we would see our percentage moving anywhere from five to 15. I think 15 [percent] is probably more than you will see, and I think five [percent] is probably a little less than you will see. It will be somewhere in there. It’s hard – remember, the year changes pretty dramatically as weather changes and kickers get a little more tired as the year wears on. So early in the season, our touchback numbers are always a little alarming, a little high. Then all of the sudden they start going down as the weather changes. The ball gets a little harder when it is cold, they do not kick it as far, all of those things. I think you will see the same this year. I think early on in the season, you are going to say ‘boy, that is a lot of touchbacks,’ and then that will change. And it always has.
On clarification of the estimate:
You are going on a lot of us trying to guess our way through it, because it is not like you have any exact numbers that you can rely on.
The totals this year – 16 percent were touchbacks. The number I have always used is that 80% were returned, with 4 percent other things occurring. But I would say that number could go down to 70 percent returned. We will have to wait and see.
On time that will elapse on a scoring play between the play and the replay official’s decision:
You would hope they are pretty good at it, because they do it in the last two minutes of both halves, every play. They should be pretty well trained on it. You would hope that in 70 percent of all scoring plays it wouldn’t take them that much to confirm it. In 30 percent, it is going to take a tad longer. I think what we may have to do– and we will work through the officiating department to make these decisions– you are going to give them some guidelines to say if you can’t confirm it within ‘X’ time, send it to the referee. I think those guidelines will be something they talk themselves through. We are not looking for — every once in a while that college game kind of drags on – we are not looking for that moment, and we are not looking to add time to the game. But once we establish some guidelines for them, we will probably make it a little more uniform and a little clearer.
On what the objections were of teams that were against moving the kickoff line:
The objection is going to be the traditional objection. It is always going to be, and I don’t blame them at all, it is that ‘hey, you are affecting my team,’ and ‘you are potentially helping team A and hurting team B.’ In rule changes, that happens a lot. We try to make rules to try to make the field either more level, more safe. There are reasons we do it. Sometimes there is a play that we never contemplated in a game that all of the sudden the officiating department or someone else brings to our attention that rules need to account for. That is how rules get made. Sometimes when you go into that second area of player safety, you adversely affect a team that has built their team or set up their way of doing business. In this case, clearly there are some teams that have good returners that look and say, ‘Hey, what if there is 10 percent less returns, you are affecting our team in some way.’ We don’t have an answer to that other than to say yes, that is probably true, but when it comes to player safety, we are always going to have player safety trump the compete aspects of the game, period. There is no issue – that is what we are going to do.
On which team that suggested to keep the three challenges:
I think the amendment was proposed by Philadelphia – you are testing me, but I think I got that one right. I think it was Philadelphia. I have heard it before and I don’t have any problem with it. First of all, in the four years since the rule has been in, the third challenge has been used three times. So it was not as if it was going to be a big change anyway. The idea was let me just keep that in my pocket in case early in a game there are two big calls – notice the word big because we are not looking for the five-yard play – where the coach needs to challenge; he has still got that third one. To me, you can’t take that argument out to as many challenges you want, but in this case fine with us, it really wasn’t something that made a big deal. We really proposed it because we were concerned that when you propose something such as this, you would have the traditional replay opponents say hey you are growing the system and we are voting against it. That did not happen.
On clarification of launching concept being that a player can launch so long as it is not at a defenseless player:
That is a good way to look at it. It is not exactly that, but it is pretty close. It is the defenseless receiver who is protected, even if his feet hit the ground from someone launching and hitting with the helmet. And I believe the quarterback in the act of passing is likewise protected from the launch. I think that is written in the rule book that way. But our intent with launching was trying to make a uniform rule that applied everywhere on the field to every player. It is prohibited in certain places in the rule book, and I think the two that I mentioned, there might be one more, but those are the two where it is referenced. It is the quarterback and it is the receiver, even when the receiver’s feet have hit the ground, you don’t have the right to launch and hit him in the head.
[Question continued] Otherwise it is legal, even if the player is leading with the helmet?
On if there was continued debate on potential suspensions for illegal hits:
No. I would say that as a discussion point in rule proposal number one, I think there was a push by the coaches to use suspension and to keep suspension as a potential. Because in their mind, there was tremendous movement by the players when the point was emphasized that suspension could occur. The message was given today, they said that a number of times.
On sentiment in room:
I think their sentiment was to continue the fine process and don’t hesitate to use suspensions. We wrote a provision in the book, our report, to confirm what the league office had done last year, and said that we support the idea that if there are multiple offenses of egregious hits, that suspension is an option. If the choice is between suspension and ejection, we would favor suspension. Suspension gives you the opportunity to watch the tape and decide if that should be the course of action and then do it. Ejection is a much tougher thing on the on-field official, although if it is an egregious act that the official sees, he is certainly given that leeway. But that is the way we wrote it in the book.
On two-man wedges:
The argument was a good one and one we have heard before in talking to Coach Pfeifer, who we kind of bounce ideas off because he was a special teams coach forever in our league. The thought was, and it was definitely a concern of ours, we don’t want to put the returner in a different position than he is in today. If you look at our injury numbers, we have a much higher percentage of injuries on the kickoff team than we do on the receiving team. That number was not always the case. One of the arguments would be if you get rid of the two-man wedge, you are making the kick returner potentially more vulnerable to the one-on-one shot because he does not have that convoy to initially get started. It’s a good point. I think a fair point, and one we have heard before. Again, when you watched the tape and when you look at everything, you would not say the two-man wedge was a contributor to injuries. I think I saw one in the two years that I looked at. Whereas when you watch the four-man wedge tape, it was apparent that was an opportunity for players to have collisions that we needed to get out, and we got them out. And the numbers went down.
On other changes considered:
Not so much the cross blocking and the cross field blocking, because that is part of it now. A little bit of that is on the coverage team. That old phrase applies in football: keep your head on a swivel. Make sure you know where guys are coming from. I don’t think that was the emphasis. I think it was more number one – traditionally you have been able to put offensive linemen one or two on a kick return team which if you take out the two-man wedge you may not be able to do at all. And number two, it may make the kick returner more vulnerable.
On adjustment of defenseless players as it relates to the quarterback:
We did not make any proposal for any changes with respect to the quarterback and the protections the quarterback has. I think if you looked at our quarterback tape over the last three years, you would be proud of the way the players play that play. Number one, our sack numbers are the same as they are every year. Number two, we don’t have a lot of fouls or fines on hits to the quarterback in the ways we used to. I think players have adjusted and understand the rule and understand that a quarterback in the pocket is vulnerable, and there are ways that you can tackle him and there are ways that you can’t. I think that is well officiated, and well done by the players – I give them a lot of credit.
On confirmation that there were only three uses of the third challenge:
Yes, over four years.
On impact of changes in policies on concussions:
As a person working at a team, I would say that I have seen a cultural shift on the concussion side, all for the better. I think that player to player accountability, in players going over and talking to other players about whether they are concussed, I think players self reporting, players reporting at practice, all of that has really moved in the right direction. The old mentality of ‘I am tougher than that, I just got dinged, I can keep going’ – I think we have moved past that in a real fast way. That is all for the good. For us as a committee, the emphasis and the focus has been a big part of what we discuss a lot. What we have tried to do is come up with rules and make sure we stay focused on taking the helmet-to-helmet hits out of the game to the extent we can. It is not a perfect world. You are still going to have some. But to the extent we can. When that player is in a very vulnerable place, we stay focused on that. Culturally, I think anybody that works for any team, any coach, would tell you that it has changed. I think it will continue to change as the whole emphasis of it gets pushed down to college and into high school. My son is graduating from high school this year, and I know when you look at his football team, the emphasis on concussions is unreal. And that is great – it is where it should be.
Do we see more reported? Yes. Do we expect to see more reported? Yes, because of the cultural change.