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NFL Competition Committee Proposes Small Yet Important First Step Towards Improving Player Safety

Just a few short days ago, the NFL's Competition Committee held a conference call announcing several proposed rule changes. On the surface, they appear to represent the first big steps towards making serious inroads towards improving player safety during in game situations. After some deliberation, I'm not sold on either even though I do belive they're an important first step towards making calculated changes to the game that will allow the NFL to survive as evidence continues to mount about how inherently dangerous it is for young men to play. Here are the two primary changes in rules proposed this week:

Firstly, flagrant/unnecessarily violent hits will not just result in fines, but instead suspensions. Repeat offenders are even more likely to see suspensions rather than fines levied at them. But does this mean 'repeat offenders' from the past? Or will there be tabula rasa moving forward? Because last I checked, James Harrison hadn't been flagged for an illegal hit in over half a season, yet I'm envisioning him being categorized as a repeat offender under these new rules. 

I don't know. I just am not sure I like this rule whatsoever mainly because what is categorized as a 'flagrant' hit is entirely subjective. Just because James Harrison is more ferocious than the rest of mankind doesn't mean that every last hit he administers is flagrant or outside the boundaries of what should be considered safe or legal. I respect where this rule is coming from, but frankly I'm not all that thrilled about suits in New York City legislating who can or cannot play the following week due to a bang-bang play the week before.

Keep in mind that these rule changes are just proposals and must be voted on by the NFL's owners before being implemented. Something tells me this one might not make it through the democratic process. We'll see.

The second major proposal is much more substantive, specific, and in my opinion, likely to have a significant impact on player safety. When I wrote about the still ongoing CBA negotiations two weeks ago today, I mentioned that I would be okay with the game changing in fundamental ways so long as its long-term viability was ensured.

But if it ain't broke, don't fix it you might be saying. The NFL clearly was structured and operated in a way that was working. But that doesn't mean it can't be a more profitable, sustainable, better regulated, and more entertaining product. As a fan, I'd be thrilled if there were an 18-game season. I'd just expect there to be bigger rosters, OTAs and mini-camps to be reduced drastically, and more sophisticated and comprehensive resources invested in researching and implementing new ideas and innovations for monitoring and preventing head trauma issues.

I'd be open to new rule changes even, like say, shortening the distance between where kickoff return coverage units begin building up steam as they head-hunt return men.

The last point is an obvious one. I never took physics in high school. I decided it'd be wiser to take psychology, an elective, from my favorite teacher and mentor knowing I'd get a perfect mark in the class and be allowed to get away with bloody murder. (You aren't reading are you mom?) But even I know the most basic principles of physics. In the modern day NFL, it's quite simple a scary proposition to let the fastest, strongest and most aggressive men on the planet build up a head of steam on kickoffs and go head-hunt. Don't get me wrong, NFL coverage units aren't trying to hurt anybody. But when you kickoff from the 30 yard line, and opposing returners catch it somewhere between 50-65 yards down field, that's a lot of time to allow unfathomably fast and reckless young men to build up a head of steam before collisions ensue.

In car accidents, your chance of survival increases exponentially the slower you're driving at the point of impact with another moving vehicle. Driving 85 and hit someone head on? Lights out just about every time. Driving 65? Chances stiill ain't great, especially if your seat belt's not on. But they're insanely better than if you're driving 85.

This proposed rule change of course is about distance, not velocity. No one's saying coverage units have to job down field. But we all know distance traveled and speed are inter-connected. Reduce the amount of distance players have to get going prior to colliding and obviously they'll bang heads at not quite such an alarming velocity. That matters. A lot.

I just took a brief hiatus from writing this to take the trash out, and while out back, I tried to visualize what this proposed rule change might look like in actual NFL in-game action. You do the same. Up until now, most kickoffs typically were fielded at or around the goal line, unless it was Jeff Reed or Shaun Shuisham booting the ball in which case the 10-20 yard line was more par for the course. But typically, we're talking about the 5 yard line to the goal line, no? What happens when kickoffs go 3-9 yards deep in the endzone? Returners kneel the ball almost always. Even guys like Devin Hester. It's what's done, the 'smart' play. Very much symbolic of NFL coaches' misguided conservative approach to risk assessment and game theory. But I digress.

Now envision Jeff Reed kicking off from the 35, five yards ahead of where he's been accustomed to booting it from since joining the NFL. Suddenly his kickoffs are more likely to find their way to the goal line. Sure, he won't keep up with the elite kickoff guys -- guys like Billy Cundiff who curse themselves when their defensive teammates don't stroll out with a swagger to the 20 yard line following a touchback. But still, the Reeds and Suishams of the league - kickers with (comparitively) mediocre leg strength on kickoffs -- should be breaching the goal line with regularity.

Will the same conservative approach be taken to kickoff returns? It's an interesting question in my opinion. Yes, the kickoff is scooted up five yards, but in return, a touchback brings the ball out five yards further to the 25. Tit for tat. I'd probably need to be a more seasoned statistician to flesh this out in a cogent way, but essentially my hypothesis is that while I love the intention of this change, I'm not sure it's ultimately bold enough of a measure in the long run.

Why? Well, I envision NFL kickers -- 'athletes' who are paid nothing but to perfect a very specific craft year round for hefty sums of money -- will quite quickly realize that the optimal kickoff is not one that flies through the endzone and uprights to the delight of the crowd. No strategic value in that. Instead, the optimal kickoff will land about 2-5 yards deep in the endzone. Tempting enough to take out for big ego return men who get paid to do little else but provide a spark on special teams.

Which brings us back to the issue of player safety. My early take is that the excessively conservative mindset of returning kicks from the endzone will change with these rules. Again, simple physics. If a kicker boots the ball with his normal strength and trajectory, but from five yards closer than he's used to, it's going to go out of the endzone. Fine, out to the 25 the offense goes. Not necessarily an optimal outcome. Not a bad outcome, but if we were to run the numbers, I'm sure that the likelihood of points being scored would go up in a non-trivial way for possessions that started five yards closer to the opponent's endzone.

What about if teams opt for those lame hiigh-trajectory pooch kick from the 35?  Well, it's probably going to be fair caught by one of the up-men close to, say, the 30-35 yard line. Again, not optimal, even if it eliminates entirely the possibility of allowing a big, momentum changing return.

Instead, I think kickers will adjust so that they tempt returners with kicks that land at about 2-5 yards deep in the endzone. Do you run it out and go for the gusto? Dropping the ball in that window should mean there's the normal amount of real estate to work with on a return. But just last year your special teams coach would have chewed your ear off for running it out from five yards deep -- and for no reason other than that group-think taught him that you're less likely to get fired for following the herd than you are for giving young, impetuous men the green light to try to make a play at the sacrifice of a few inconsequential yards on occasion. 

I'll stop, but hear me out before I sign off. I love the idea behind this rule.I think it is an important first step towards intelligently and cautiously altering the game so that it can be enjoyed in essentially the way it is now for years and years to come.

At this point, I sure hope you don't think I'm sort of football atheist -- a young'n with no respect or reverence for tradition. Couldn't be farther from the truth really. I love football, and I especially love the National Football League.

  Special teams are awesome; very entertaining to watch, and as well all know as Steelers fans, they're a huge part of the game. In 2009, Pittsburgh was historically bad on special teams. They paid the price and missed the playoffs as a result. Other shortcomings plagued their postseason aspirations beyond just being the worst team in NFL history at covering kicks. But poor ST play played an undeniably big role. Fast forward to 2010. Again, lots of factors in play, but improved ST definitely was a primary impetus for the Steelers three-game improvement in the win column.

All that said, it's not worth it. It's just a handful of plays each game that ultimately shouldn't determine whether NFL football sinks or swims. There's plenty of other comeptitive and entertaining elements of the game for the league to hang its hat on. At least in their current form, special teams are too dangerous. Period.

I don't really want to see the game evolve so drastically that it barely resembles the product our most cherished sports memories will always cling to. But I think special teams will ultimately be one facet of the game where nostalgia and history have to be thrown out the door. Let's keep the game great and sustainable, even if it means eliminating or altering an undeniably electrifying element of the game. Unfortunately this exciting facet of the game has also been scientifically proven to be the most violently dangerous -- for all sorts of injuries, but most notably head trauma issues.

So, like I said, I applaud the NFL Competition Committee for putting for this proposal. I expect it to pass and will be pleased if it does. But I don't think it's a long-term solution. Whether or not the powers that be recognize that, I have no idea. But as I mentioned, sometimes change must be implemented gradually. And I think this is a sound first step.

Go Steelers!  And even though I'm a grumpy consumer and fan at the moment, long live the NFL!