John Mara has served on the NFL Competition Committee for a dozen years and during that time its most vital mandate has remained unchanged. Player safety has been and will continue to be at the forefront of all committee discussions and decisions.
"That's the first, second and last thing that we're concerned about," Mara said.
The Competition Committee studies all aspects of the game and recommends rules and policy changes to NFL clubs. It gathers every year prior to the NFL owners meeting in March. And while the committee's work last month did lead to rules changes, Mara, the Giants' President and Chief Executive Officer, was just as eager to talk about a rule implemented last year that made the game significantly safer for players.
In 2011, the committee submitted a proposal to move kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line and restrict the running start coverage units get to five yards behind the kicker (they could previously line up much further back and build up momentum before pursuing the returner). The proposals were passed by the full ownership, 26-6.
Although the number of kickoffs rose slightly last year – to 2,572 from 2,539 in 2010 – returns fell to 1,375 from 2,033. In 2010, 80.1 percent of kickoffs were returned. Last year, the percentage of kickoffs returns was 53.5 percent, the lowest in history. The average yards per kickoff return was 23.8, the highest in history (the previous high was 23.7 in 1962).
Touchbacks rose to 1,120 (43.6 percent) in 2011 from 416 (16.4 percent) the year before. But to Mara, another statistic was far more important than those numbers.
"One thing we did determine is that by moving the kickoff to the 35 yard-line it reduced the number of returns, but reduced the number of concussions by 40 percent," Mara said. "So I don't think you'll see that rule change. The kickoff is by far the most dangerous play that we have in our game. The hits are pretty violent and they come from all different directions. There are guys running full speed, that's the problem. That's why we put the rule in. It shortens the field a little bit and it cuts down the number of returns."
Some coaches – particularly those who employ the league's best return specialists – as well as several returners voiced their displeasure after the spot of the kickoffs was moved up. They are not as vocal now.
"There was no support for moving the kickoff back to the 30 yard-line," Mara said. "I think everybody was convinced by the statistics. The interesting thing was that, yes, we moved the kickoff to the 35 and, yes, that caused far fewer returns and poorer field position for the offense, but scoring was not affected (an average of 44.36 points were scored per game, virtually the same as the 2010 average of 44.07). The game we have right now is as wide open a game as we've ever had. The fact that field position went backward had no effect on scoring. So there really is no sentiment for moving it back to the 30."
Mara can envision a day when a far more radical change is made and NFL games are played without kickoffs.
"We had a lot of discussions about whether we should eliminate it and if we did what we could do in its place," he said. "There's no consensus on it right now, but I could see the day in the future where that play could be taken out of the game.
"You see it evolving toward that. Nobody would go that far now, but we talk about different blocks that we can outlaw. The problem is that the concussions come from everywhere, from the wedge, from the crossing blocks where a guy goes from one side of the field to another, from a full speed collision between a return guy and a tackler. So there's no one thing that you can do. It's something that we'll continue to watch as closely as possible."
Mara is joined on the committee by Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman; Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy; Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones; general managers Rick Smith of Houston and Ozzie Newsome of Baltimore; and head coaches Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati, Jeff Fisher of St. Louis and Ken Whisenhunt of Arizona.
The group spent "quite a bit" of time discussing concussions and what can be done to decrease the frequency that players suffer them.
"It's obviously a big issue for us right now and whatever we can do to try to reduce them, it's something we have to look at," Mara said. "I think we looked at just about every play where there was a concussion during the season and spent a lot of time talking about whether to make more rule changes on that. The one change we did make was the blind side block. Right now, in order for it be a foul, before hitting a guy in the head the blocker has to be moving toward the goal line. We changed that to say he can be parallel, because in many cases that's still going to be a block that the other player cannot see. You can still block him. You just can't hit him in the head.
"We've enacted a lot of rules to try to minimize the number of helmet-to-helmet hits. You see a lot of them occur with the head hitting the ground or the head hitting another player's knee. It ends up being unavoidable. But with the testing we have in place right now we're making progress. We have gotten to the point now where it's in the hands of the medical professionals. A player can't come back to play until he's cleared the test administered by an independent physician. I think we're on the right track, but we have to continue."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it his mission to improve player safety. He didn't attend the competition committee meetings, but he asks detailed and pointed questions following the deliberations.
"We usually meet with him right after our meetings to go over all of the points and all of our recommendations and he will question us in detail, particularly when it involves player safety," Mara said. "He can be very helpful in convincing certain clubs that are not in favor of a proposal. That's been his primary concern, player safety. It's obvious, by imposing the fines that he has, and in certain cases, suspensions, he has shown that he's concerned about that and wants to do everything he can to make it safer."
The primary safety rule discussed at last month's competition committee meeting involved the quarterbacks. A rule proposed by the Pittsburgh Steelers would have made the horse-collar tackle illegal on the quarterback in the pocket. Such tackles are illegal elsewhere on the field. But the proposal did not receive the support of the committee and only five owners voted for it (24 votes are needed for passage).
"I think the reason the horse collar rule is in effect is it's such a dangerous play, particularly when a defender grabs the back of a jersey right at the neck area and then ends up falling into the legs of the offensive player," Mara said. "That's not really what happens when the quarterback is in the pocket. We just felt it did not create the same amount of risk. I think it was very important. It's a natural thing for defensive lineman to reach out and grab the quarterback, but you don't see them fall into the back of the legs like you see in the open field."
Another Pittsburgh proposal did receive the backing of the committee and was passed overwhelmingly by the owners: to use the new overtime rules adopted last year for the postseason for all regular season games, beginning in 2012. The new rule states that an overtime game cannot end on a field goal on the first possession. The opposing team must get one offensive series. If it kicks a field goal to tie the game, the overtime will continue. Should the team fail to, it will lose and if it scores a touchdown, it will win.
"We just thought that it should be consistent," Mara said of adopting the postseason overtime rules in the regular season. "The coaches, I think, felt strongly about that, too, saying, 'I don't want to have one set of rules for regular season and another set of rules that all of a sudden you're using for the first time in the postseason.'"
One proposal that was rejected by both the committee and the owners would have given authority to determine replay reviews to the replay official in the booth, removing that responsibility from the referee on the field.
"One of the teams had submitted a proposal for having all of our replay reviews conducted upstairs, which is the system that we had when replay first went into effect," Mara said. "We found at that time it really didn't work very well. I think primarily because the people we had doing the reviews upstairs were not as capable as the on-field referee. The referees that we spoke to were dead set against the proposal. To their credit, they want to be the ones that make that call. And I think there is a certain value to having the guy on the field do it. Plus, these are our most highly trained individuals. So why not leave it in their hands? And their accuracy rate is pretty good and it's gotten a little bit better each year. So there was very little support for making that change."
But for the second year in a row, the owners did vote to make a significant modification to replay. For the first time last season, all scoring replays were reviewed. Beginning in 2012, all turnovers will be looked at by the replay official. Mara and his fellow committee members disagree that the additional replays will slow down the game.
"We felt that this would not add any time to the game and might even speed up the game a little bit," Mara said. "After almost every turnover there's a commercial break. And what happens now is the coach will often wait until the end of the commercial break and then he drops the flag and then the review takes place. If we have an automatic review it will take place during the commercial break. So, hopefully, it will not slow things down. It provides a little bit more flexibility for coaches, too. They don't have to challenge scoring plays and turnovers anymore."
For the first time, however, fans in the stands will be able to see the same video feed the referee is studying when he is under the hood. But if the "under the hood" feed is utilized live during the review, it cannot be replayed after the referee announces his decision.
Some other proposed rules changes were tabled until the next owners meeting in May. They include expanding training camp rosters from 80 to 90 players; allowing an exemption to the 53-man roster for one player with a concussion; and a one-player exception to the injured reserve rule. It would allow one player injured before the second week of the season to return to practice after six weeks and to game action after eight weeks, rather than miss the entire season – as all players placed on IR must do under the current rules.
"We had a lot of discussions on all of those issues," Mara said. "The committee supported all of those proposals, I think, 9-0. But there needs to be some discussion with the (players) union about that and some more discussion with the rest of the membership. I think that those proposals will eventually pass, but it's not a slam dunk at this point. There are some people who are not in favor of this."
Mara, however, believes all three proposals make sense.
"I like the idea of the (expanded) roster entering training camp given the number of injuries you deal with very early on," he said. "I think it makes sense. It's what we had last year. I thought it worked out pretty well. I just think that to have a more effective training camp and to try to save a little bit on the wear-and-tear of the guys who are healthy, it makes sense to have 90. The other thing that used to happen was it used to be 80, but you didn't have to count your draft picks until they were signed. So you would have somebody on your roster the entire offseason, go through the program, go through the OTAs and right before you have training camp you sign a draft pick and then you cut the guy. Now we're saying that the 90 would include your draft picks whether they're signed or not. We should know that going in. Really, traditionally if you look back we've been around 84, 85 when you had the exemptions with NFL Europe. So I don't think it's that much of a change. I think we'll end up at 90 or somewhere close to 90.
"With the concussion exception, I think it's a positive step also. There's some concern that it could lead to some abuse, but I disagree with that. It's only one player at a time. In this day and age, you're not going to want to falsely label someone that's had a concussion. The player's not going to want to be falsely labeled as having had a concussion. So I don't see how it can be abused."
Twenty years ago, players could come off IR after four weeks. But the system was changed, because too many teams were abusing the system by stashing players who weren't really hurt on injured reserve. But some have come to view the current system as too restrictive.
"The IR exception, I think, makes a lot of sense," Mara said. "There was some abuse of that when that used to occur, so we thought to keep that as narrow as possible. One guy for the entire season - once you use it you can't use it again. And he has to be out at least six weeks. I think it makes sense. But you're not going to use that for your backup fullback. You're going to use that for one of your marquee players that you think has a chance to come back.
"The player I always think about is Tom Brady getting hurt a few years ago and there wasn't the possibility that he could come back for the playoffs. It's something that you would only use for a marquee player and you can only use it once. So I don't see it as much of a risk. There are some people that really believe strongly in the purity of the 53-man roster. They don't want to see any exceptions to that. I just think that in this day in age, given the number of injuries we're dealing with, a little flexibility is not a bad thing, particularly with one of the marquee players. So I think that will eventually pass."
Mara is one of the NFL's most influential owners. He is the chairman of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee and he played a significant role in the negotiations that ended the lockout last year. And he is, of course, the chief executive officer of the Giants organization. But Mara considers his work on the Competition Committee as important as anything he does, because it improves the game for everyone in the league.
"When you're sitting there watching a few hours of potentially every offensive holding penalty that we call during the year it can get a little tiresome," Mara said. "But you feel like you have an impact on the game, My concern has been, like a lot of other people, trying to make it a safer game, so you feel like your time is well-spent. I would always rather err on the side of player safety, because my experience in this league is no matter what rule you implement, no matter how many complaints there are from coaches and players, eventually they adapt to it. There was a huge outcry when we started putting in a rule protecting defenseless receivers - that we were making it impossible for defensive backs to play the game. While we may have made it a little more difficult, we certainly didn't make it impossible and we believe that we have made it a little bit safer for defenseless players and we're going to continue to try to do that.
"We have a very exciting game, scoring is up, so many games go down to the wire, so much unpredictability in the game, everybody has a chance to win every year. We really think we're in a good place. Our challenge going forward is how do we make it safer?"