Committee to look at 'low blocks' -- again
DEARBORN, Mich. -- Likely to soon be in the middle of the maelstrom that surrounds the play on which Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Tony Williams suffered a season-ending ankle injury, Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay acknowledged Thursday afternoon that so-called "low blocks" will again come under scrutiny from the NFL's competition committee.
McKay is co-chairman of the influential committee, which deals with rules changes and other on-field alterations and points of emphasis. He was here to update NFL owners, during a two-day league meeting, on the competitive state of the game thus far this season.
The block that sidelined Williams, carried out by Denver Broncos offensive right tackle George Foster, was not an issue at the meeting. But asked about it by reporters, McKay allowed he has received many phone calls from coaches and team officials about it.
"I'm sure, based on what has recently transpired, [the competition committee] will be talking about it," McKay said. "There will be discussions about 'low blocks,' although the topic comes up every year. But this will again put some more light on the issue."
The block in question came when Foster went low into Williams legs and fractured the ankle of the Cincinnati tackle, who underwent surgery earlier this week and faces months of rehabilitation. According to league rules, the block was legal: Foster had his head in front of Williams, the defensive lineman was not engaged with another Denver blocker, and the play came within the confines of the imaginary box that exists between the offensive tackles.
However, many in the league have questioned whether the block, while legal, was altogether necessary. Some have suggested that, although it fell within the purview of the rules, it was unethical and could have been avoided, particularly since it came away from the action on the play.
While he didn't concede the block was disturbing, McKay strongly hinted that he felt it needs to be carefully studied by the committee and the league.
"Sometimes there are plays where the consequences and the results, you just don't like [them]," McKay said. "But by the written rule, the way he did it was legal, in my mind."
The matter of low blocks is a somewhat ticklish one for McKay, since the Falcons' line coach is Alex Gibbs -- who, during his years in Denver, essentially created the blocking scheme the Broncos still use.
The Broncos have been particularly criticized because, for years, opposition defensive linemen have felt that the cut-block scheme for which Denver is so notorious puts their knees and legs at risk and jeopardizes their careers. Williams is the second lineman this year to suffer a season-ending injury against the Broncos. Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer suffered a broken leg on a block by Denver tackle Matt Lepsis.
In past years, Broncos linemen have incurred substantial fines for their blocks.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan earlier this week vigorously defended his linemen and the blocking scheme and showed members of the local media videotape of other teams using similar techniques. But even other head coaches, notably Bill Cowher of Pittsburgh and, of course, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, have railed against the block, creating a firestorm the competition committee will not be able to ignore.
In other on-field matters, McKay said the offseason decision to re-emphasize the illegal contact rule in the secondary has had the desired effect, with passing yardage up over the first seven weeks. So far, teams are averaging 212.4 passing yards per game, a dramatic increase from 200.4 yards in 2003.
Total offensive yards are also up, from 318.3 per team a year ago to 327.2 now. The per-game scoring, however, is down slightly.
There have been 31 more illegal contract penalties than in 2003 through seven weeks, but those have been somewhat offset by a decline in pass interference calls. The average time for a game, 3 hours and 6 minutes, remains the same as in 2003.
One interesting anomaly is that, while the raw numbers on injuries remain the same as they have been the past several years, the number of players on injured reserve is up pretty significantly from past seasons.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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