With the end of the lockout and with a new collective bargaining agreement in place, wholesale change has been implemented in the NFL. But aside from the contentious issues that were at the center of the lockout for several months, changes have been made to the NFL rulebook that will alter the way the game is played in an effort to, in the eyes of league officials, help protect the players.
The NFL has expanded its rules to prevent hits above the shoulders of "defenseless players" from defenders using the crown of their helmet, forearm, shoulder, or facemask. The league and its officials have changed what constitutes a defenseless player, extending the scope from just wide receivers to all players.
"Basically, what they're trying to do is take the helmet out of all hits, especially if you launch," NFL side judge Rick Patterson said. "They do not want any contact with a defenseless player anywhere, especially with a kicker, quarterback and the punter. They do not want the defender using a helmet as a weapon on a block." While some of the rules protecting players and banning hits with the helmet were in place before the changes, defenseless players now include the following -- players throwing a pass, a runner whose forward progress has been stopped by a tackler, players completing a catch without having time to avoid contact, kickers or punters during a kick or a return, a quarterback on a change of possession, and a player who receives a blindside block.
In an attempt to limit "launching," a 15-yard penalty will be enforced on any defender who leaves both feet before contact to spring forward into an opponent and delivering a blow using any part of his helmet.
Perhaps, the most controversial rule change, at least for the Steelers, is the one that allows the NFL to punish teams if their players commit multiple flagrant hits that result in fines, a rule that many have dubbed "the Pittsburgh Steelers Rule." Upon hearing the news of the rule changes in May, Steelers linebacker James Harrison tweeted, "I'm absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots."
Last season, Harrison was at the center of a debate over the nature of violent hits in the NFL. He was fined a total of $100,000 by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, including a $75,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
Patterson stressed that the new regulations are in place to ensure the welfare of the players, not to single out individual teams and players. "I'm not sure about the targeting question, so I don't know," he said. "I'm assuming [the Steelers] are just like any other team -- they're interested in safety and tackling the correct way and changing as the game changes."
Many of the other notable rule changes for the 2011 season center around kickoffs and replay. Kickoffs will be moved forward from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, while coverage teams are limited to a 5-yard running start before the kicker makes contact with the ball as opposed to the 10- to 15-yard start they used to get. Additionally, booth replay will be used to review all scoring plays.
While the new measures surrounding illegal hits and defenseless players have not been met with universal praise or acceptance around the NFL, officials insist that the amendments are necessary to protect players in a rapidly evolving game.
"The one thing I would say is our game is changing, players are changing, time is changing, and I think the league feels like they have to change with the times," Patterson said. "Whatever they implement, we'll go through with that.
From the PG