Rule changes address workplace safety
The owners meetings wrapped with procedural tweaks -- and issues still to be decided
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Members of the NFL's competition committee looked as though they were in a lightning round of a game show.Owners were wrapping up their annual meeting Wednesday, and, as always, the competition committee vote was at the end. In less than 40 minutes, the committee considered eight playing-rule proposals, passing seven. By comparison, there was much deliberation Tuesday before owners voted 28-4 to give the opposing team a possession if the coin-toss winner scores a field goal on the opening drive of overtime in a playoff game. Several coaches, including the New Orleans Saints Sean Payton, weren't happy with the new playoff overtime rule because that vote came while the head coaches were on the golf course Tuesday. I guess that's why they call it an owners meeting. Twenty-eight owners supported the playoff overtime change, and they weren't willing to give their coaches an extra day to debate the issue. Businesswise, there weren't many decisions for the owners to make. The uncapped year is only in its third week, and the union and the owners are about as close to a new deal as the location of both groups' annual meetings -- the owners met in Orlando, player reps met in Hawaii. Here are the five issues that emerged at these meetings and other things that are gaining momentum in the NFL for the months ahead. 1. The league didn't announce an opening-week schedule of key network games, and commissioner Roger Goodell hinted as to why. He's still concerned about playoff-qualified teams tanking games in the final weeks of the regular season in order to rest their starters for the playoffs. On Wednesday, Goodell said the league is considering having an entire schedule of divisional games for Week 17 and having a decent schedule of divisional games in Week 16. The schedule is expected to be released in mid-April, but staffers are studying different ways to ensure more good games at the end of the regular season. 2. Workplace safety won the week at these owners meetings. Umpires will be moved into the offensive backfield for their safety following a season in which two umpires suffered concussions and three required surgeries, two for knee operations and one for shoulder surgery. The proposal to protect defenseless receivers passed without much problem. The 3½-page proposal legislates an unnecessary roughing call on a defender if he launches himself and lands his helmet, shoulder or elbow into the head or neck area of a receiver who hadn't been given the chance to protect his body from the collision. Another passed proposal protects long-snappers. Now, a defender cannot line up directly in front of a long-snapper who doesn't have a chance to protect himself initially after snapping the ball. Another new rule states that the play is dead once a ball carrier's helmet comes off. In a proposal spawned by Jerry Jones' new scoreboard at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium, a kick that hits the scoreboard will be ruled dead immediately and replayed at the previous spot. Starting this season, if there is a dead-ball penalty at the end of a half or a game, the penalty would carry over into the second half or overtime. In a cleanup rule change, the penalty for a defender hitting a kick returner who muffs a fair catch will be only five yards. Before, it was a 15-yard personal foul. For what it's worth, that play is called the modified molested punt. 3. For those who care about the uniform numbers of players, the league voted in a plan to create some uniformity despite the switch to a 3-4 defense. Defensive linemen can now wear numbers from 50 to 79 and 90 to 99. Linebackers can have numbers from 50 to 59 or 90 to 99. The new part of the plan is to let defensive linemen wear numbers in the 50s, helping to clarify situations in which players have to switch numbers moving from the defensive line to linebacker during the course of their careers. Quarterbacks, punters and place-kickers must wear numbers between 1 and 19. Running backs and defensive backs must be in numbers from 20 to 49. Centers can wear numbers from 50 to 79, while guards and tackles must wear numbers from 60 to 79. Wide receivers can wear numbers from 10 to 19 or 80 to 89. Tight ends can wear numbers between 80 and 89. 4. Even though coaches might be upset about the way owners rammed through the overtime change proposal, get ready for more action. The owners meet again in May in Dallas and plan to discuss the prospect of using the new overtime rule in the regular season -- possibly as soon as this fall. The only reason owners didn't apply the rule to this regular season was they wanted to have a chance to discuss it with their coaches and solicit opinions from players. 5. Plenty of interesting things carried over to the May meeting. The league's finance committee continues to study to sale of the St. Louis Rams to Shahid Khan. The next owners meeting still might be too early for a vote, but the sale is important to keep pro football in St. Louis. Also, the site for the 2014 Super Bowl could be decided in May. The debate is to whether to have the Super Bowl in the new open-air stadium of the New York Jets and New York Giants or to have it in Miami or Tampa Bay. Nothing is new on the labor front with 11 months left before a possible lockout, but there is a chance a bargaining session or two could occur before the May owners meeting.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.