PHOENIX – The NFL was declaring itself healthy, happy and yet still discontent as owners, general managers and coaches began arriving at the Arizona Biltmore hotel for the annual league meetings this week.
“The film shows the quality of our game is extraordinary,” said Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations. “It’s good. But we won’t stop aiming toward perfection.”
Although the No. 1 topic this week is the expected vote on Monday that will allow the Oakland Raiders to relocate to a stadium yet to be built in Las Vegas, Vincent said the “No. 1 priority is focus on player safety.” With that in mind, the league’s competition committee will step up efforts this week to warn teams that the NFL is prepared to increase ejections and suspensions of egregious illegal hits in 2017.
“We just want to show some plays that we think have no place in our game and therefore should result in suspension and/or ejection, as opposed to sometimes people get caught up in the idea that a player should be warned and then there should be aggressive types of enforcements,” said Rich McKay, competition committee chairman and Falcons president and CEO. “These are plays that we just don’t want in our game.”
The competition committee won’t propose any rule changes in this area. Just an emphasis that ejections and/or suspensions are available options.
McKay said the competition committee put together a tape of “four or five plays” from the 2016 season to use as examples. It shared the tape with the NFL Players’ Association last week and will show it to ownership this week.
“These plays don’t happen very often,” McKay said. “Let’s give the players credit. We have 40,000 plays in a year. And we’ll show a tape [this week] that will have four or five plays that we would say would warrant suspension. So this is not a widespread situation.”
“When you see the plays, they’re catastrophic,” Vincent added. “There are very few of them, but … we had two players who [as a result] did not return for the season. So they’re high-impact plays that belong out of the game. When we see it, we have to enforce it. And it’s going to be a real point of emphasis this season.”
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles made two proposals designed to improve player safety via rule changes. One reduces overtime for preseason and regular season games from 15 to 10 minutes. The other would make it illegal for a defender to leap over the line of scrimmage to block a field goal or PAT.
McKay said the shorter overtime rule is geared to protect players who may have to play another game on as few as four days rest. As for the “leaper rule,” Vincent said the league needs to adopt this rule before the “inevitable happens,” meaning a serious neck injury from the leaper landing the worst possible way.
Other items being discussed and voted on before the meetings conclude Wednesday include:
• A proposal by Buffalo and Seattle to open up replay challenges to all officiating decisions. There is little chance this gets the 24 votes necessary for approval.
• The competition committee’s proposal for a second season of experimenting with the rule that moved touchbacks on kickoffs to the 25-yard line.
• Make the automatic ejection rule for two specific unsportsmanlike conduct penalties permanent. The specific violations are for striking or attempting to strike another player; using abusive, threatening or insulting language to opponents, teammates or officials; and baiting or taunting acts.
Overall, McKay said the league starts this week “from the point that the game is in a really good place.” He also said it’s obvious that most players clearly are conforming to new rules designed to take unnecessarily dangerous hitting techniques out of the game.
As from a competitive standpoint, McKay gave another thumbs up.
“[In 2016], our margin of victory, 10.23 points per game, is the smallest since 1935,” he said. “Only twice has it been lower than it’s been this year, and that’s 1935 and 1932. From a competitive standpoint, that is a very good stat.”