Rules changes on the docket

It was where instant replay was installed, where overtime was instituted, and then just last year where overtime was changed but only for the playoffs. The annual NFL owners' meeting is as much a part of late March as the blooming of daffodils, and wherever it's held is where rules get changed.

This year, the site is New Orleans and the dates are Sunday, March 20 through Wednesday, March 23, and there are some interesting items on the docket.

According to reports, the NFL will be more aggressive in suspending players for illegal hits, and there also could be changes to instant replay and kickoffs.

The league office levied substantial fines last season for hits it deemed illegal or too violent, but there were no suspensions handed out for this during the entire 2010 season. The reason, said Ray Anderson, was because "we were operating under the principle unless you have given sufficient advance notice of what the results could be, you need to be more lenient."

Coaches and team executives will be informed in New Orleans that suspensions will be much more likely in 2011, and that repeat offenders will be the guys punished most harshly. The league will look at two years worth of plays to determine which players fall into the category of repeat offenders, and there now are eight specific categories that will be used to define a defenseless player:

A quarterback in the act of throwing; a receiver trying to catch a pass; a runner already in the grasp of tacklers and having his forward progress stopped; a player fielding a punt or a kickoff; a kicker or punter during the kick; a quarterback at any time after change of possession; a receiver who receives a blind-side block; and a player already on the ground.

Besides the initiative on illegal hits, the NFL Competition Committee also will propose changes on instant replay as it pertains to coaches' challenges on scoring plays, and there will be a presentation where kickoffs will be moved to the 35-yard line with touchbacks coming out to the 25-yard line.

Under the instant replay recommendation, any scoring play – touchdown field goal, extra point or safety – will be reviewed automatically by the replay assistant. If the replay assistant thinks the call on the field is questionable, he will signal to the referee to review the score.

All scoring plays thus would be treated the same way that the last two minutes of the game are treated with respect to instant replay: reviews by the replay assistant only, and no challenges. Tied in with this is a proposal to eliminate the third challenge, which coaches are allowed to use only if they win their first two challenges. The Competition Committee believes that the third challenge wasn't successful often enough to make it worth the times it delayed the game.

As to the proposal to change kickoffs, moving the ball from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line will make it easier to kick the ball into the end zone, but it will be more punitive to do so with the ball then placed at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line. What will not change is the penalty for kicking the ball out of bounds – the receiving team still will get it at its 40-yard line.

Staying with the kickoffs, also on the table is a proposal to eliminate all forms of the wedge block, including the two-man wedge, and players on the kickoff team all will have to line up between the 30 and 35-yard lines, with the idea being to cut down on injuries on kickoffs.

All of the proposals will be voted on by the owners next week in New Orleans.

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