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Wednesday, March 23, 2005
Updated: March 24, 10:06 AM ET
Owners unanimously approve stricter rules for safety

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- NFL owners made their stand Wednesday. The theme was safety first, replay change later.

Every recommended safety issue -- with the exception of the so-called "horse-collar" tackles -- passed Wednesday at the owners meeting in Hawaii.

The Competition Committee will rewrite the proposal on the horse-collar tackle, with which Cowboys safety Roy Williams injured four players last season, and submit the re-written proposal for approval at the league's May meeting.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the failure to approve "down-by-contact" plays on instant replay. The measure failed by four votes. Though 20 teams supported the idea to review those change of possession plays stopped by "inadvertent whistles," there were 12 negative votes.

The ability to review down-by-contact plays might have fixed roughly 20 calls when a fumble wasn't ruled a fumble by a quick whistle. The only change in replay for the 2005 season will be the elimination of the sideline buzzer system, which had been an option for coaches. Starting this season, throwing the red flag will be the only option for coaches who want to review a play.

Rich McKay, co-chairman of the Competition Committee, at first supported the inclusion of the down-by-contact replay in the committee's 8-0 recommendation, but changed his vote Wednesday.

"I changed my vote for one reason," McKay said. "When you looked at this rule as we wrote it, it allowed down by contact, but when you watched the tapes of the play, all the issues that I thought applied to that whistle weren't there. It was very easy to see on tape the fumble."

McKay predicted the committee would look at the change again and it might then have a better chance of passing. Committee member Bill Polian, general manager of the Colts, was actually surprised by how many votes were in favor of the replay change. Typically, it's hard to change replay because there are blocks of votes against the whole concept.

The Cardinals, Bills, Bears and Bengals are always against replay and usually can get some support to block changes. Joining the quartet on the down-by-contact veto were the Browns, Dolphins, Patriots, Saints, Raiders, Chargers, 49ers and Bucs.

"You've not heard the last of this," McKay said of down-by-contact replay. "There was the hope last year when we passed replay [for five years] that we would never have to discuss a replay vote. The traditional non-replay people were against it. I wish [we] would have had more time and I wish we could have watched more tape. So replay will be in place exactly as it was last year except for the elimination of the buzzer."

When it came to safety, though, the NFL was aggressive. Based on last year's statistics, McKay predicted the safety changes could prevent as many as 25 injuries. The changes included:

Meanwhile, language is the only thing holding up a rule to prevent "horse-collar" tackles such as those used by safety Roy Williams of the Cowboys. Williams' tackling tactic involves grabbing the back of a player's shoulder pad, immediately yanking his hand down and then falling on the back of the players' legs. The injured players from Williams hits last year were Tyrone Calico of the Titans, Musa Smith and Jamal Lewis of the Ravens and Terrell Owens of the Eagles.

"There is no question that this rule will be passed in May," McKay said. "We decided today after discussing it that it had plenty of votes to pass. We had some coaches that had concerns about the language. We would like to suggest that we adjust the language."

From the competitive standpoint, there were plenty of minor adjustments. Overall, there were 19 proposals. Thirteen passed.

Many of the new rules were minor:

Several team proposals were rejected.

The Chiefs failed twice to change back the illegal contact rules. The Chiefs didn't like a first down automatically being granted for 5-yard penalties for illegal contact. They wanted just the yardage to suffice. That was rejected, 21-11.

The Chiefs also lost on their attempt to make the pass interference rule the same as in college ball, in which 15-yard penalties were granted instead of moving the ball to the spot of the foul. The Chiefs lost that one, 24-8.

The Patriots lost 28-4 on a proposal to prevent rule changes or interpretations by the league or the Competition Committee unless there is a formal vote by the owners. A lot of that was caused by Bill Belichick's protest of a rule adjustment by the league last season involving the stoppage of back-to-back timeouts to ice the kicker.

There was an effort to make the "ice-the-kicker" rule formal, but it was tabled until a later meeting.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.