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NFL Rule Changes: Tuck Rule Out, Running Back Helmet Rule In

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During the NFL Owners Meeting this week the league approved six rule changes. Included are one people thought was long overdue - abolishing the tuck rule, with another - removing running backs' ability to lead with their helmet - is not so popular.

David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

The NFL announced two major rule changes yesterday, along with other modifications to the NFL's rules. The NFL Competition Commitee had made six recommendations to the NFL owners on possible changes to the game starting this year.

The proposed rule changes, all of which passed, were a reviewable play not being reviewed if a coach challenged when he shouldn't, a change to how teams can line up on field goals and extra point block attempts, the removal of the tuck rule, adding the numbers 40-49 to the fullback, h-back, f-back, and tight ends, removing peel-back-blocks, and restricting helmet initiated hits by ball carriers.

After the rules were officially approved, Competition Committee Chairman and Atlanta Falcons Owner Rich McKay and Committee Member and St. Louis Rams Coach Jeff Fisher discussed the changes:

Fisher: With respect to the playing rule proposals that we obviously discussed at length this week, all of them passed, one in particular, which I will comment on here at the end.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 1 was the one that involves instant replay - the change where it is no longer going to be a penalty per se if a coach makes a mistake and challenges a play that is not reviewable. That passed.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 2 was the first player-safety related proposal. It involves the PAT and the field-goal rush teams. We talked at length about the difficulty that we are having, the injuries that were taking place and the number of blocks versus the number of successful kicks. Basically, what we have done is we have put restrictions on the rush team's alignments - no more than six players to one side of the line of scrimmage - and we have taken away the ability for them to block low from the rush team's standpoint. There are two fouls involved. One is a five-yard penalty for illegal formation. If we have a push or a violation that falls under the category of unnecessary roughness, it will be a 15-yard penalty and a previous-spot foul.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 3 was related to the tuck rule. It modifies the tuck rule so that when a passer begins to bring a ball back to his body in attempting to begin the tuck and he loses that ball, whether on the way back to his body or after completing the tuck, it will now be ruled a fumble. Incidentally, we had that rule pass and we had two teams that abstained: New England and the Washington Redskins' (general manager) Bruce Allen abstained, in favor of the Raiders, I am sure.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 4 is just a jersey cleanup in the rule book. We are now going to permit teams to allow their fullbacks, H-backs, F-backs and tight ends to wear jerseys in the 40 numbers, 40-49.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 5 relates to the peel-back block. That also was approved. That is the Cushing hit from this past year. As we talked at length this week, it was illegal but we had still permitted offensive players blocking back toward their own end line to block low; that is no longer permissible and will be a penalty.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 6 is obviously the proposal where we place restrictions on ball carriers and defensive players initiating forcible contact with the crown of their helmet.

McKay: Playing Rule Proposal No. 6, as Jeff said, is just as he described it. There are two elements to it. Both players have to clearly be out of the tackle box. It applies to a runner or a tackler. It applies when that runner or tackler ducks his head and delivers a forcible blow with the top or crown of his helmet. I thought the process with respect to it - Jeff and the commissioner can comment on it - was outstanding. We have been going through the process with respect to this rule for a number of years. We have had discussions with both the NFLPA and the players; we have had the coaches' subcommittee; and we have had (Pro Football hall of Fame) Coach (John) Madden's player safety advisory committee. We have had a lot of people kind of talk to us about this rule, how we should write it and how it should be rolled out into our game. That is where we ended up today.

Yesterday was a very productive day because what we heard from the coaches was everybody was on board in respect to the player safety aspect of it, some were nervous about how it was going to get coached up right at the start and some were worried about the officiating side of it. Those are all of the concerns that we have heard for a long time as we talked about it. None of them were new revelations, but they were ones that we needed to work through with them and let them understand our perspective on it. It was a very productive discussion. It was one that led to a lot of good talks by owners and by coaches with respect to the game and respect for the game, the players that play it and the fact that this is a pretty major change but one that they think can quickly be adapted to by the players.

On the vote results on Playing Rule Proposal No. 6:

McKay: 31-1.

On if the Cincinnati Bengals opposed:

McKay: Yes.

On no penalty occurring if a challenge flag is thrown when a play is not reviewable:

Fisher: It would be a penalty if the coach didn't have timeouts remaining or the coach for some reason threw the flag inside of two minutes, it would be a 15-yard penalty. We would still go ahead and review the play unlike what happened last year in the Detroit game.

On defining the crown of the helmet:

Fisher: We have four components to the helmet: the facemask; the side; the hairline, which is where the facemask connects to the forehead; and the crown is clearly the top of the helmet. That is what we are referring to.

McKay: One of the things when we ended today that we are going to do and we talked about with the coaches is we are going to quickly get out another tape to the coaches from Dean Blandino and his people. We will show the exact plays that are legal - a lot of plays that are legal - and then the plays that will be illegal. We will also give them a clear explanation of how it is going to be taught to the on-field officials so they will understand the mechanics of the call and how the official would make the call.

On rules promoting player safety and what can be done in the future:

McKay: I have been on the committee a long time. My first year on the committee was 1994. That was the year that we put in the defenseless player rule, if you will. They were in the [rule] book. We expanded them. I have always thought that player safety has been at the forefront of our discussion for a long, long time. The game has gotten safer over time. Where we have really focused is on the big hits, the open field hits and hits where players truly can't defend themselves. In this step that we are taking we are trying to protect the player from himself with respect to this rule. That is probably another step.

When you watch the tape and when you look at the data, I do believe the game from a safety standpoint is in a good place. It doesn't mean we can't do more and doesn't mean we shouldn't do more in the future, but right now, we feel pretty comfortable where the game is.

Fisher: I also add the change we made as it relates to the kickoff has had a significant impact in reducing the number of injuries on the field from two years ago.

From a coaching standpoint when a rule goes in or when a rule is modified, we take it, we run with it and you actually see habits changing on the field. In the video, which we refer to as the data, you can see players' conduct on the field between the snap and the whistle changes as it relates to the type of things that we are going to get out.

McKay: We view ourselves as a league that has to be a leader in this area. Our hope is always that our rule changes can impact those levels below us: high school, youth football, college or whatever it might be. We have had some really good exchanges with the NCAA over the last four or five years on rules and how they are going about it. We feel pretty good about that.

I was at a high school game a number of years ago and I remember some woman - my wife was right next to me - stood up and screamed, ‘That is a horse collar.' They called it a horse collar. I was like, ‘That is amazing that there is a horse collar in high school football.' I really didn't think that. When we make rule changes, we realize we are trying to push it all the way down and impact the game.

On how many penalties would have occurred in 2012 if Playing Rule Proposal No. 6 existed:

McKay: What we did is we challenged the NFL office guys to take a look, along with the officiating department, of every single play this year of Week 10 and Week 16 - every single play. We came up with that there would have been five in one week and six in the other week. In our mind, that is too many. Our hope is that clearly those are not 11 fouls but hopefully 11 plays that do not occur that way.

On officiating Playing Rule Proposal No. 6:

Blandino: We have discussed it. We don't feel this is any more difficult than the other player safety rules that we have - hits on defenseless receivers. The way we are going to teach it is we are looking for the player that squares up the opponent, lowers the head and delivers a blow with the very top crown of the helmet. The official will be looking at those three things to make that determination. We understand that it happens quickly, but there is an educational process that takes place, and it involves a lot of tape. We are going to look at a lot of legal plays so that the officials understand what we don't want called.

On if runners or tacklers can still initiate contact with the face mask or hairline:

Fisher: Yes, there is no rule that prohibits a runner from using his facemask nor the hairline. What we are talking about is keeping the head up. When you are making contact with the hairline, your head is basically up. We have said it numerous times about bringing the shoulder back into this. We are not going to not allow a runner to protect himself, to protect the football or to drop his head in an effort to protect himself against a tackler. It is about delivering a blow.

Over the last day or so, we have received a lot of opinions from former running backs, some in favor of this and some opposed to this, with respect to all of them. Prior to coming in here, I got a phone call from (Former Titans running back and Fisher's former player) Eddie George. Eddie George said, ‘What is going on?' He took the position that this is going to be a difficult thing to enforce and a difficult way to play this game. After a 15-minute conversation, he changed his mind and said, ‘That makes sense. I would be in favor of that.'

Basically, what our job and our task ahead now is, is to inform our players and inform the officials and communicate why and the reasons behind this change.