Competition Committee transcript

 COMPETITION COMMITTEE TRANSCRIPT – MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2011 

COMPETITION COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN RICK MC KAY & NFL EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT OF FOOTBALL OPERATIONS RAY ANDERSON

Rich McKay: “Ok, so today as we’ve done in years past [on] day one of the NFL owners’ meeting, we presented the Competition Committee report. So we would have had a couple [of] different times where the coaches, the GMs and then today the owners heard the report last night. The coaches were shown video, went through the rules, the rules proposals and the like. This morning, the entire report was gone through and the football operations segment and then the owners at 1:30 today. So we’ve covered the report a lot with them. It’s a pretty simple report compared to years past in the sense that we only have five basic rule proposals, two of which are very technical in nature and not worth necessarily discussing, three of which are pretty substantial rules. Two of those rules are based on player safety, and one of those rules is kind of based on modernizing, if you will, the instant replay system. So we’re happy to discuss any of those. In the back of our report, we do a couple of things: we have a section that is kind of on miscellaneous positions. That really is a section that is based on a lot of issues that come into the league office during the year, a lot of player personnel issues and issues that are related to football operations. We take positions on those for the league office. The second section is the playing rules clarifications, positions and clarifications. Those are rules that we don’t believe need any changing, but because of plays that occurred during the season, because of questions from coaches, whatever it may be, we offer clarifications of that rule, some of which will change a word or two in the rulebook but don’t change the officiating of the rule itself. That’s kind of how the book is broken down. I’ll go through the playing rule proposal if you want.

“Playing rule proposal number one is, as I talked about on the call the other day, really a kind of a re-writeof the defenseless player rule, and really all we’re trying to do there is get the language kind of uniform. We created its own article; it was in Article 8, it’s now been moved to Article 9. It will just focus on the defenseless player. A couple of changes that will occur, if this were to pass, is in the unnecessary roughness section in Article 8 we added a section for illegal launching. That is a tactic in which we’ve seen more of. We certainly saw more of when we watched the college tape than you would like to see also, which is when a player leaves both feet either prior to or during contact to spring forward and upward, and then strikes the opponent with the initial force being with his helmet. And it literally is for what we’re seeing more players do, which is become comfortable with the idea that their helmet can be the initial point of contact – either in a tackle, a block, any play – than we would ever used to see. It’s the problem that is presented by the helmet – and the shoulder pads too – but the helmet, in the sense that these were protective padding by design in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I think have become a little more comfortable to the players as more of almost armament, if you will, and feeling very comfortable that they’re not subject to injury when they use them, specifically the helmet. And that’s what this rule is directed at, is trying to get that tactic out of the game, or technique is probably a better word.

The next thing is in Article 9 of that rule, the only change to defenseless player really is an expansion of the defenseless receiver, which is a specific category in the rule itself. Basically what we’re saying in this rule is that a defenseless receiver is one defined as ‘either attempting to catch a pass, or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself, or who has not clearly become a runner.’ We’re just trying to expand that window. We’ve got a lot of players, too many players, that are catching the ball, landing with two feet on the ground [and] before they can do anything, they get hit and they get hit in the head. In our mind, that’s kind of defenseless. Defenseless should mean, in our mind, that you should be a runner or someone able to defend yourself before you’re subject to that type of hit.

“So that’s the two major changes. There are a couple of other minor changes in there [that] don’t really change the rule itself. I’ll take any questions if you guys have questions about that rule.”

Just going back to the defenseless receiver first who did not have time to protect themselves or not become a runner and subject to that type of hit, what type of hit are you talking about?

McKay: “That would be the two things that you’re protected for when you are a defenseless player, which means think of it as two protections. Number one, can’t hit me in the head, head or neck area. And number two, you can’t hit me with your head. You can’t take your head and bury it into me because -I haven’t had an opportunity to defend [myself]. So that’s the type of protection that player has, same as the quarterback just in the act of throwing the ball, same as the kicker or punter after a kick. There are eight categories of defenseless players; those are the two protections you get and that’s what that player gets.”

On if launching applies to the backfield:

McKay: “Well, first of all, it does not apply to the tackle box. One of the notes in here is that number one, this is not meant to prohibit the conventional tackle that involves a defender that runs through a runner. You see many times guys will run through and they’ll literally bring their hips and do that, but they’re not launching upward; they’re running through a runner. Perfectly legal. Second thing is, it doesn’t apply to the tackle box, because our feeling was in the tackle box there’s too many instances where players are literally trying to go up to stop forward progress either by the runner himself trying to get the yardage, or by the tackler. In those instances, it’s not a foul.”

McKay: “Ok, let’s go to playing rule proposal number two. This rule is a lot of fun. This is the kickoff proposal. How did we get to this rule? We make a lot of rules, and Mike [Pereira] knows this well from all of his years, we make a lot of rules that we’re trying to make this game better, or that we’re trying to correct what would be an inequitable rule. This neither of those. This is a rule that is 100 percent based on player safety. We have a play in our game, the kickoff, in which we’re seeing higher rates of injury than we would like, that we’re comfortable with and we’re trying to find ways to modify it. A couple of years ago, we put a rule in that prohibited the three-man wedge, or four-man wedge in some instances. That clearly moved the needle for us and helped us with respect to injuries on the play, but not as much as we would like. And so this is another proposal. This proposal is not one that if you were asking the committee to vote on it from a tactical standpoint and for the betterment of the game. I believe the committee would be 0-7 against. From a safety issue, 7-0 in favor, because I think this gives us an opportunity to shorten the field and to lessen the impacts, if you will, that are happening on a play that is a popular play, historical play, been a part of our game forever and a play that we want to keep in the game. And so, this was our attempt at that. There are many different elements to the rule that we propose and we had a really good discussion this morning, or I guess it was this afternoon, with all of the people in the room about different aspects of it which we’ll think about tonight and go through. But the rule was we were trying to balance a lot of things because the nature change in the rule was moving the kickoff back to the 35. With that, we talked about moving the touchback to the 25. We definitely have an interest in moving the kicking team closer to the kickoff line, so we proposed a five-yard restraining line, if you would, from where the kickoff would be. Changed a couple of little things. Changed the kickoff out-of-bounds so people wouldn’t be incentivized to do that, and we have a lot of good feedback from the coaches and from the GMs in the meeting today. I don’t blame any of them for saying, ‘Wow, this is a big change.’ It is a proposed big change. I don’t blame anybody for pushing back. But our focus in this one was dealing with what we saw and felt with respect to the safety issues, and the need to propose some changes, these are the proposals we came up with. And it will be an interesting discussion I think again tomorrow. And it was a good one today, I thought a very healthy one which was good. We welcome it. This isn’t like the discussion we had last year with respect to overtime where you’re really arguing about equity and do you think this is fair or not; this is 100 percent about safety and trying to do something that we think is in the best interest of the game that way.”

Would you amend the proposal based on the discussion today?

McKay: “No, we have not. They made a lot of good suggestions, and we’ve got to go back. We met a little bit after today, we’ll meet again tonight, and we’ll meet again tomorrow. So plenty of meetings and we’ll see where we end up.”

On if there have been any discussions about leaving the touchback at the 20-yard line:

McKay: “It was definitely brought up today as far as leaving the touchback at the 20. Our concern was that you’d be affecting field position because of that, the fact that you would have some touchbacks so the percentage of touchbacks would go up. Now the comeback to that is we still think you might be giving the return game a little better chance than we think because when you move the line at which people can start, when you move it to the 30, they can get a five-yard running start. When you watch the tape of our kickoff play today, the great majority of people line up either on the 17-yard line or the 15-yard line, so that’s a 15-yard running start which they wouldn’t have. So we might be helping the return game a little bit with that too. So we’ve got to kind of balance that out tonight and talk about it, but there’s no question a number of coaches raised the issue of the touchback. Valid concern and one we talked about. We kind of need to work our way through that.”

Do you think a proposal will be voted on sometime tomorrow?

McKay: “I never believe anything when it comes to proposals, but I would say yes that one will be voted on.”

Is there a discussion that there could be more injuries because of more kicks and coverage teams taking their chances because they think they can do better than the 25?

McKay: “I think there is the thought that you can hang it down the middle, but let’s remember that my first year on the committee was 1994 and we moved the kickoff from the 35 to the 30. That change was big [but] quite frankly that wasn’t the biggest change that year; the biggest change was getting rid of the two and three inch tee. That changed a lot of what happened on our kickoffs because what happened with that three-inch tee was people could really hang the ball and you could take the average kicker and he could kick the ball to the 10-yard line with the hang-time starting with a five, it didn’t start with a four. So our feeling is with a one-inch tee that becomes harder to do. That’s not quite as easy as you might think, but it was definitely brought up.”

On the differences in the number of injuries prior to the elimination of the three-man wedge and last year:

McKay: “I can’t [tell you the number]. I can tell you that it was enough where it resulted in playing rule proposal number two.”

On a concern that changes might affect the ability for some players to play:

McKay: “First of all, we start with player safety. We start with what’s in the best interest of those players as far as their health and safety. Secondly, I don’t think there’s any movement by any of us to say the kickoff should come out of the game. I think the movement by all of us was let’s try to find ways to keep it in the game and subtle changes to it. So I wouldn’t go as far as you’ve gone because I don’t see that happening. … There were a couple of teams in the survey, but a couple of teams are not going to drive us. One thing I want to say is that we did make progress, and Mike Pereira knows it, we made a lot of progress when we took the three-man wedge out. But the problem is that we’ve lost a little of that progress and the play numbers still bother us a little bit so we’re just trying to make some further revisions.”

On if players raised concerns about the kickoffs:

McKay: “Yes. We had a meeting with them. We’ve had that meeting numerous years in a row and we brought up the kickoff play again this year, as we did to them when we talked about eliminating the wedge or limiting to a two-man wedge. There are many guys that are on in the kickoff, kickoff return team and they raised their concerns, sure. The one thing hard about it when you ask people what’s your alternatives, it’s not like they proposed alternatives to us. But I think they definitely raised a concern, one of which we’re trying to follow up on.”

On if he had done the math concerning the percentage of kickoffs returned for a touchdown at the new proposed distance:

McKay: “Great question. The answer is that we don’t know. We really kind of went back to ’94 and said where did we leave this? And we left it when the kickoff was at the 35-yard line, we left it at 78 percent of the kicks were returned. I think I’m right on that. Seventy-eight percent of the kicks were returned, but a couple factors have changed. Number one, kickers probably have stronger legs today. Number two, they don’t have that two or three inch tee anymore; they have a one-inch tee so that is a little help to us. And number three, and most importantly, they don’t have control of the footballs anymore. In those days, balls didn’t look like footballs when they kicked them. I’m not sure what they looked like. And now the K ball should regulate that a little. So we don’t think it’ll be a tremendous swing; we think it’ll be a swing.”

On a lot of people that will say they are trying to eliminate the kickoff:

McKay: “The story I would tell you, and I’m not speaking out of school because I’m not going to tell you who it was, but I did have a special teams coach that I know pretty well call me when the elimination of the three-man wedge came in and he called me to tell me that he did not think there would be another kickoff return for a touchdown in the league. Ever. I think this year there were 23, I think it’s the second most ever. So one thing I know about those guys, they’re bright guys, they’ll find ways to return, they’ll continue to innovate as they have and I think the play will still remain an exciting and integral part of our game. It’s just simply in our opinion a play that we need to try to find a way make safer. That’s the intent.”

On what tactical ways he has seen guys try to get around the elimination of the three-man wedge:

McKay: “It’s definitely cross-blocking, it’s definitely the idea of being able to take a blocker from that side of the field to block somebody on this side of the field. That is a very nice technique because I don’t see him coming. So at the last minute I see him and he gets me blocked pretty well which is a little easier than the guy straight ahead of you, so they’ve done some great things. When you watch kickoff returns, and we watched enough of it to know, you give the special teams coaches a lot of credit. They’ve done some really good things, creative things, and we’ve got a lot of talented guys that are very athletic guys that can, if you give them the slight opening, that can take it the distance. We had heard from a lot of coaches, and I had one call me, that critical to the success is the ability to wedge the kickoff open. It didn’t end up being the case.”

On if the cross-blocking makes the play more dangerous:

McKay: “No. We’ve watched enough tape. There are some plays that concern you but we do have rules in with respect to direction of that block, what’s known as the blindside block, which is a defenseless player that tries to protect that if you’ve got him from behind or his blindside heading back to your goaline. But that’s not as big a concern. The wedge was a big concern to us.”

On if they talked to the colleges about this:

McKay: “We did. We had that same meeting in Indianapolis with their rules committee people and this year we had (Ohio State) coach (Jim) Tressel and (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban join us, and it was a really good meeting. Very productive meeting for us, and I think they just were waiting to see number one, what the impact of our changes would be. They also don’t believe they have probably the quality of kickers that we have, and so they’re interested by it. They changed the next year after we changed the wedge, and I think they’ll wait and see what we do in this one before they decide what changes they may make. But that was a productive meeting for us, and really that gets into a little bit of rule proposal number one, that’s where we got really focused on the idea of putting a provision in there about the illegal launch. Because when you watch their tape, you were a little taken back by how many instances in which those types of hits occurred, and we kind of have thought that they were limited to our game. Maybe a little bit in their game, and they were probably in their game a little more than we thought. And that gets to your days of the horsecollar. When we saw the horsecollar, we thought it was only in our game and nowhere else, and then all of sudden it showed up real fast in the college game. Luckily I think that rule has had an effect.”

McKay: “If you don’t have anything else, I’d love to talk rule proposal number three. That is a proposal to what I would call is modernized a little bit of instant replay. It’s really driven, in my mind, in the benefit of the coaches. It’s the idea that we would let the replay assistant up in the box confirm every scoring play, as he does every play in the last two minutes of the first half and last two minutes of the game. It’s just putting him in that position. Why would you do this? Well we think it’s a little unfair with respect to coaches that are on the road and they’re going to see a Pepsi ad, or a Coke ad because I’m from Atlanta so I’m going to say Coke, on a screen while this scoring play has occurred and the umpire is trying to drag it out but that doesn’t mean that the ad is going to go away. The guys in the box are watching a TV such as this trying to determine if they should ask that coach to challenge. So we felt like in this instance, because we want to stay true to the challenge system, but in this instance it was a good way to say every scoring play should be confirmed upstairs. If the guy has a doubt and believes that the referee should review it, very simple: he hits the button, the referee reviews it. No change in the system as far as referee review. Will it lead to more stoppages? I don’t think so. It potentially could. We don’t think so. The coaches’ challenges for that play are about 20 percent of their challenges come on scoring plays. Their success rate is I think in 2010, they challenged 53 plays and they got 22 reversals. We’ll see what their numbers are with respect to if the replay system were given this ability. That’s really the proposed change. As I say, I think it’s a little bit of the modernization of the system. We would tell the umpire we will come up with a mechanism for him to be informed as to when the play has been confirmed. It could be instantaneous, it could take 20 seconds as it does now for him to confirm during a normal play in the last two minutes of the game. So that is the proposal.”

On if that includes potential scoring plays:

McKay: “It does not. Because in our mind, once you go down that path the idea of what a potential scoring play is gets real difficult. Whether the guy caught the ball, didn’t catch the ball, at the one. So in our mind, the bright line, really going a little bit to Commissioner Tagliabue when we were trying to get replay in, his initial theory was let’s just limit it to scoring plays. Period. And you know what, that probably would have gotten us votes in those days. But in this case, we keep the entire system we have but gives us the ability to make sure we can confirm every one of those.”

On getting rid of third challenge:

McKay: “We just put it in there because quite frankly, we want to make sure that because we’re eliminating one of the biggest plays coaches challenge, we don’t want to get them into the business of challenging the three-yard gain or the three-yard incomplete. One thing that that challenge system does, when you get two right and get another one, is it motivates you to potentially challenge plays that the design of the system was not to challenge. In the history, just so you know, last year there were eight teams that were successful on two challenges. Year before there were four teams successful. That’s all year. Year before six, and the year before six. So since 2007, 24 times a team has been successful on two challenges. With two hundred and something games a year, not necessarily what we thought was a real number.”

On if the impetus was coaches without challenges and there being plays that couldn’t be reviewed in that instance:

McKay: “No. I’ve said the impetus came from the coaches sub-committee and discussions with coaches in which they’ve felt like the pressure put on them with respect to the review of and decisions made on challenges, specifically on scoring plays, was too high and was too rough given the circumstances of not having the ability to see it. Their feeling was that anything you can do to help us in this regard would be a help, and that’s really where we got to this proposal.”

On if the league has thought about using its own cameras instead of relying on the networks’ cameras:

McKay: “Yes, we’ve discussed it in the past. The feeling has always been the cost-benefit is not there to do it. We’ve always said replay is going to ultimately be driven by television and their production capabilities because they do it better than we do. For us to get into that business then of having to set up cameras, because we’ve had issues before where people have proposed why don’t you put a camera on each goaline, why don’t you put a camera on each endline? And we’ve always come back with the same position: that that’s better left for television. This is an aide; this isn’t an end-all system, and so we’ve never gone down that path.”

On the ability to only challenge a play that was called a touchdown:

McKay: “You just said why the challenge system itself is always open to criticism. That’s really the argument that you gave me, is why do you have a challenge system? Because ultimately somebody could be out of challenges and if they are, you’re not going to be able to review it. And that’s always been a fear of ours. We had a game where [the Falcons] played the Eagles two years ago. We had a play where they said that we had touched the ball, they recovered it and they won the game. We didn’t touch the ball, but we were out of challenges. That’s the way it was. Our coach knew it, we knew it, we were out. So I think in the challenge system, if you have to get your mind around the idea that it’s not that system we talked about way back when of getting every play right; it’s a narrow system that provides challenges on plays that you’ve deemed to be game-changers, big plays. Our feeling was on the third challenge is it didn’t work, it didn’t do what we thought it would do and now, if you’re going to take away scoring plays, which are 20 percent of all challenges, it’s potentially motivating the wrong conduct, which is the play that five-yard out and the guy throws a challenge because he has no downside… Only scoring plays. There were 252 challenges last year, 53 were on scoring plays. We had them go back and I wanted Kenny to give us all those and that’s what they gave us… But again, the alternative is you don’t have it at all and you have to keep that challenge. We’re trying to give them more, we’re not trying to give them less. Literally, this is to help the coaches in this process; not less. But I agree you could still argue, ‘Hey shouldn’t the system be bigger?’ But you know when you get 24 votes in that room to get the system bigger, it gets more challenging.”

On if the replay official chooses not to review, can the coach challenge:

McKay: “No. It’s just like the last two minutes of each half.”

On if he is concerned that the replay official may not want to contradict or embarrass the officials on the field and would then be less motivated to challenge a play:

McKay: “No, I’m actually concerned the other way. I’m concerned that he might hit it more than that because I think he’s got that standard that’s been drilled into him since Jerry Seeman, Mike Pereira and Carl Johnson, which is like in the last two minutes make sure you confirm, be very comfortable you confirm. If you can’t confirm it, you give it to the referee. And so I think it goes the other way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the situation where that we were concerned that he wouldn’t stop it.”

On if there is a proposal by the clubs:

McKay: “No. No proposal by the clubs.”

On proposals Nos. 4 and 5:

McKay: “One’s a double foul that now will carry over, and one is keep your fields green. We don’t need a red field, as in Eastern Washington. So these are pretty simple proposals, four and five.”

On why player safety seems to be more prevalent than before:

Ray Anderson: “Well since we’ve been here, player safety has always been a priority and we’ve made no secret about that. I think as we get more educated about some of the effects of some of these injuries, particularly when we’re talking about head and neck area injuries, that we have a responsibility to respond. So times have changed as Rich alluded to. The equipment is more like armor now and it’s used in a different way than it was before. So we’ve got to be proactive about protecting against devastating, harmful head and neck injuries, against defenseless players. And so we’re going to do that, we’re going to continue to look for ways to improve and that really is our charge. Times have changed.”

McKay: “The only thing I would say too is that my first year on the committee was ’94 and that was the kickoff year. But the next year was ’95 and we put the defenseless receiver rules in. That’s a good long time ago and the focus of that was that we saw some plays that we thought the receiver was put in a place where he had an unreasonable risk of injury. And that’s kind of the standard that I always remember from the committee, from the George Youngs and the Don Shulas, was this is a tough game. This is a risky game, this is a physical game, but we have a duty to make sure that the players are, to the extent we can, we keep them out of unreasonable risk of injury. But this is not a focus that has come on just in the last two to three years. What is a focus, and what Ray and Commissioner Goodell have done a great job of, is making you all, i.e. the media, very aware of it through the fines and everything else of that focus. But I think as a rules committee, you can go back way before I ever got on this committee, that this has always been a pretty big focus, and there has been a lot of tactics and techniques that over the years have had to come out of the game just because they were unsafe.”

On if they have the power to make this a rule:

Anderson: “In appropriate cases, yes. But our coaches are very knowledgeable folks, they’re respected folks. Our football operations people are respected folks with real, intelligent, reasonable input, and we want that out. We don’t want to unilaterally change the game because we think we have all of the answers. There’s a process so that it’s not appropriate for us to willy-nilly just make changes. In certain cases does the Commissioner have some authority to do that? Yes, but we want to do it in a more inclusive, if you will for a lack of a better term, democratic way. But player safety is absolutely critical, and if there is a critical point where we think we just have to act in the best interest of the game and there is no other way to do it but unilaterally, then if that case presents itself we have the authority to do that.”

McKay: “But I thought today was extremely productive with the coaches. I thought they had a lot of good ideas, a lot of good input. That’s part of the process, and it’s a good part. We haven’t won every proposal we’ve ever made, that’s for certain. But we’ve usually tried to find a ground in which they understand the position and they understand the reasoning, and then we get a rule passed. So, we’ll see.”

On the coaches input regarding the kickoff proposal:

McKay: “I don’t know. I certainly think that they have every right to say ‘Hey this sounds a little substantial to me, this is kind of a big change and why are we making it?’ No problem, and I don’t know that I agree that I would do this, why don’t we do that. I’m good for that too. I think ultimately you have to do what’s in the best interest of the game. That’s what we’re charged with as 32 teams. Hopefully we reach a point where that happens. But I don’t begrudge anybody for saying ‘I don’t like the way this rule is written, I would rather have it written this way.’ I’m fine with that. And remember, it’s hard on coaches in the sense of if you had an offensive playbook that requires your offensive linemen to do it a certain way, and then all of a sudden the Competition Committee comes and shows up and says ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t block it this way anymore,’ that’s a little tough. So, what we try to do is make sure we get all of their input in the survey and make sure they know in advance there are issues that we’re going to have to address, and then we try to get rules passed.”

On the movement of the position of the umpire:

McKay: “We did at length, and I appreciate you saying that you thought it was positive. We did too. We were not nervous going in as you know because we felt like our guys could adjust and could get it right, despite what may have happened in the preseason in a couple games. I think the feedback is interesting from the officials themselves. I think if you talked to the referees and the umpires weeks one through six, they were a little ‘We’re struggling, we’re trying, we’re doing everything.’ Then it was weeks seven through 12, ‘Eh, pretty good.’ And then a couple of guys said late ‘Boy, we should have done this a couple of years ago, we really weren’t in the right place, we were at risk.’ We said we felt the change was necessary. I think offensive holding went up in the first couple of weeks, we felt it would. It flattened out, it ended up being at a level that was this much higher than it’s traditionally been. I think the left tackle realized he probably was at a little more risk for coverage on holding and probably had to conduct himself accordingly because the referee was always challenged, as you know looking through. So we felt like it went very well. We still have plenty of work to do on it because we still have the defensive holding issue that we have to make sure, and the coaches raised to us that we have to make sure, we have to pay attention to. We saw it maybe a little later in the year with people doing some games even on the pass rush, but I think overall the experiment was very good. We had a tape last year, we had over 100 umpires on the ground. We had surgeries, we had injuries. We didn’t have any this year. That was a big improvement for us, so we felt pretty good about it.”

On if the Lions-Cowboys return for touchdown play came up when talking about the instant replay proposal:

McKay: “Yes, that was one. There were numerous plays, but it really came from when you talk to the coaches sub-committee, coach Madden’s sub-committee, one of their points was the replay system, we’re ok with the fact that we have a challenge system, we’re ok with the fact that we’re stressed. But you have to at some point take some of this off of us because you’ve got people at home that are watching 60-inch screens that have high-def and can figure out if a play should be challenged or not. You have people in the stadium that know that. And we’re the ones that sometimes are in the toughest spots. So we just felt like this was a way to modernize that process.”

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