- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Apparently, the NFL is serious about putting safety first at this year's owners' meeting.
Owners passed four safety proposals Tuesday morning, a full day before they normally pass any rules involving action on the field. In past meetings, owners usually waited until Wednesdays to debate and vote on rule changes involving the game. The Competition Committee makes its annual report to owners on Monday, giving supporters or opponents an extra day to lobby for votes.
When it came to safety this year, there was apparently no debate. Starting this fall, the NFL is going to outlaw the "wedge" on kickoffs, stop the bunching of players on onside kicks, protect blockers from a helmet-to-helmet hit from the blind side and save receivers from forearm or shoulder hits to the head when they appear to be defenseless.
"We're trying to make the game safer for the guy getting hit and the guy doing the hitting," said officiating director Mike Pereira, who plans to retire this year.
The safety change for the onside kick may seem to be a minor adjustment, but it became more important when the Competition Committee watched tape of violent collisions on onside kicks.
In recent years, the league has tried to make onside kicks safer. Special-teams coaches, however, found ways around those changes to group more players in smaller areas to gain an advantage. Under the new rule, players on the kickoff team will be spaced accordingly. First, at least four players of the kicking team must be on each side of the kicker. Second, at least three players must be lined up outside each inbounds line, including one who must be outside the yard-line number.
The "wedge" has been part of kickoff returns seemingly forever. The wedge is simply three players lined up in a blocking triangle that a returner follows as it plows up the field against kickoff coverage. After watching years of tape, the Competition Committee felt the wedge was causing too many injuries. Starting this fall, no more than two players on the receiving team may intentionally form a wedge to help the returner. The penalty is 15 yards and will be enforced from the spot of the wedge. It will be called if three or more players line up shoulder to shoulder within 2 yards of each other to lead the blocking.
The third accepted proposal involves a play in which Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward made a block that resulted in a broken jaw for Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers. A 15-yard penalty will be enforced if a player delivers a blind-side block to the head of a defender using his helmet, forearm or shoulder.
The final change addresses forearm and shoulder hits to protect defenseless receivers. In the past, officials gave an unnecessary roughness penalty to a defender if he delivered a helmet hit to a receiver going across the middle of the field or any spot on the field in which he appeared to be defenseless. Starting this fall, the penalty will also apply if the defender hits the defenseless receiver in the head or neck with his forearm or shoulder.
"Our clear movement is to getting out of the striking in the head area," Pereira said. "We're reading about injuries that say spinal and vertebrae. We've got to try something."
Also, defenders who are knocked to the ground no longer can lunge into quarterbacks if the play is still going on. Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard did just that on the hit that ended Tom Brady's season almost before it began, and Pereira placed such plays in the player safety category.
That adjustment was not a rule change and did not require an owners' vote.
Pereira was dismayed by the lack of progress in curbing horse-collar tackles. There were 24 called in 2008, up from 12, but there also were 47 league fines handed out for them.
"That's just too high a number," he said. "We have not been effective in terms of stopping the tactic."
Such tackles will be a point of emphasis with officiating crews in 2009.
So will holding penalties, on which the variance of calls from crew to crew has been huge. Pereira's office is compiling a tape that will be shown to officials, coaching staffs and players.
"It's one area we need to find consistency from crew to crew," he said.
Asked about the ratings for each crew last year, Pereira said they averaged 98.1 percent accuracy, down slightly from 98.3 in 2007. Naturally, he wants that number as close to 100 percent as possible.
"We had some train wrecks and train wrecks hurt you," he said, referring to Ed Hochuli's blown call on Jay Cutler's fumble in a Week 2 game between Denver and San Diego, and to the Week 11 win by Pittsburgh over San Diego 11-10 in which a late Steelers touchdown wrongly was negated. "They hurt perception. It was hard getting through Week 2. That's what we have to avoid this year."
The owners could make that easier by passing a rule allowing video replay to be used to determine whether a play similar to Cutler's is an incomplete pass or a fumble. That vote is expected Wednesday.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Owners passed four safety proposals Tuesday morning, a full day before they normally pass any rules involving action on the field.