EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - In the 11 years that John Mara has served on the NFL Competition Committee, player safety has always been what the Giants' President and Chief Executive Officer called, "the number one focus."
So after a 2010 season in which questionable hits and concussions seemed to constantly be in the news, what were the committee's meetings like last month?
"I think there was even more of an emphasis on it this year," Mara said. "In the last two years it has probably dominated those sessions much more so than it has in the past. I think we go in every year with that as our main goal - what can we do to make the game safer? We are all concerned about injuries, not only on our team but on a player's post-career life. So we try to enact rules that make sense and make the game safer. Sometimes they are controversial and you get a lot of push back from the players. We met with the players again in February in Indianapolis. It is always amazing to me how many of them are against some of these rules, because they feel they feel like they are unfairly penalized or unfairly fined."
The committee unanimously endorsed a proposal that was approved by the owners in New Orleans at their annual meeting that is expected to make the game safer for the players. But a more sweeping proposal did not come to a vote because of a vocal opposition, though Mara and the other Competition Committee members are considering resubmitting it at the next owners meeting in May.
Mara is joined on the committee by Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman; Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones; Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian; general managers Rick Smith of Houston and Ozzie Newsome of Baltimore; and Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis. Former co-chairman Jeff Fisher is no longer coaching the Tennessee Titans, so he participated as an advisor who did not vote.
Making the game safer for the players dominated the discussions.
"(Player safety) is more prevalent now because we are learning more about concussions and the effects of hits to the head," Mara said. "We spent a lot of time in Indianapolis listening to doctors on the Head, Neck and Spine Committee and talking about those injuries. So that has been one of our goals, to try to reduce hits to the head as much as possible."
The committee closely studied kickoffs and submitted a proposal that would move them from the 30 to the 35-yard line. Last year in the NFL, 2,034 kickoffs were returned. They were fielded, on average, between the five and six-yard line. By moving up the spot of the kickoff, the league expects to increase the number of touchbacks (416 last year), which in turn will reduce many of the game's most violent collisions.
However, the committee did not get everything it sought in the new rule.
"The kickoff in our view, based on the statistics that we have, is probably the most dangerous play in football," Mara said. "We have more injuries per play on kickoffs than in any other play. There are a lot of reasons for that. So we proposed a rule which would have put the kickoff at the 35. It would have put touchbacks at the 25 (five yards further up the field from where they are traditionally spotted). It would have outlawed the two-man wedge. A couple of years ago we outlawed the three or four-man wedge. And it would have made the kickoff team start five yards behind the kicker, as opposed to now, when they are about 20 yards back and they get a running start. We attempted to slow them down a little bit.
"There was a lot of discussion about that and there was some opposition to it. People were uncomfortable with the touchback being at the 25. They thought it would lead to a lot of these high pooch kicks with the thought being that the kicking team would want to try to hit the receiving team deep as opposed to kicking it out of the end zone. So we can get the results that we wanted – we will get more touchbacks, which is okay in our view, because it will cut down on the number of injuries. We ended up compromising and we moved the touchback back to the 20-yard line, which seemed to appease most of the coaches. And we kept the two-man wedge in because there really wasn't any evidence that indicated that we had more injuries coming with the two-man wedge."
Twenty-four votes are needed for the owners to approve a proposal. The kickoff modifications passed, 26-6.
"The teams that voted against it were generally the teams that have the high-powered kick returner," Mara said. "We think this will certainly increase touchbacks, but again to me, that is not the worst thing in the world."
The changes to the kickoff were officially proposal No. 2 on the committee's agenda. The first proposal was not approved, despite strong support from the committee, whose members believe it would have further reduced the possibility of serious injury by decreasing the number of hits to the head.
"We wanted to do a number of things," Mara said. "We wanted to extend the protection for receivers who have just made a catch. We want to classify them as defenseless players. Previously, if you had completed the act of making a catch, you were no longer a defenseless player. What we proposed, because we saw so much tape of receivers getting hit just after the catch of the ball – in the head – that we wanted to extend that protection to them so that you can't strike them in their head or neck area. And you can't, as a defender, lower your head to make forcible contact with them, the top of the crown of your helmet or the forehead of your helmet against any part of the receiver's body. That was as much to protect the defensive player as the offensive player because in a lot of the plays we saw, it was the defensive player also getting hurt there. So what we are saying is that you have to use your shoulder and forearm or whatever to stay away from head and neck area. That was part of the rule.
"The other part of it was extending that same protection to a player who receives a blind-side block, which you see so often in games where your opponent is moving toward the end zone and hits a player from the blind side. We are saying that you have to stay away from the head and neck area. And you have to refrain from using the top of the forehead part of your helmet from making contact. It is okay if it's incidental contact, but you can't lead – because we just saw a lot of vicious hits in situations like that, which were unnecessary - finding ways to make those blocks without going up into the head or neck area.
"Another part of that rule was we want to prohibit what we refer to as 'illegal launching.' We don't want defensive players to strike an offensive player by leaving their feet and going in an upward motion. That results in a lot of helmet-to-helmet contact and a lot of hits to the receiver's head. And again, it is equally dangerous to the defensive player. And there are a couple of players in the league that seem to use that as a tactic."
The proposal had to be tabled because of opposition from many coaches. A show of hands demonstrated far fewer than 24 owners would vote for the measure.
"Many (coaches) were concerned about penalties being called that would affect the outcome of the game," Mara said. "Because the officials have always been instructed that when in doubt in a play involving player safety, throw the flag. And that is a standard a lot of people are uncomfortable with. And the coaches seemed to think that the current rules are working, which came as a surprise to me. It seemed to me that a lot of them complained about enforcing those rules during the year."
After hearing that yellow flags are at the heart of the debate, Mara and Co. are not prepared to throw up a white flag on their proposal.
"We may re-submit it in different parts in May and hopefully get some of it in there," Mara said. "All we're looking to do is to take out some of these unnecessary hits to the head and some of the unnecessary hits to defenseless players."
Everyone in the NFL knows all such hits can't be legislated out of the game. But a committee proposal that was approved by the owners will require a player who is injured to remain in a safer venue.
"One interesting change for next year is that if a player suffers a concussion during the game and is declared out by the team physician, the player has to exit the field and go to the locker room and shall not be permitted to return to the sideline for the remainder of the game," Mara said. "That came after discussions with a number of the doctors. They felt that it was a much safer environment in the locker room rather than bring them back out on the field where potentially they could be tempted to go back into a game; and where you are dealing with noise and other issues.
"The other interesting part of that is that if a player does suffer a concussion he will not be available to the media after the game. If a player suffers any other kind of injury and is declared out, he has to go to the locker room. He is allowed to return (to the sideline) in street clothes."
The committee discussed another hot-button safety issue that has yet to be resolved.
"One of the more controversial topics right now is whether to make the wearing of hip pads, knee pads and thigh pads mandatory," Mara said. "The players are very much opposed to that. There are a number of coaches in this league who feel they should be mandatory. Even though each team has the right to make them mandatory, some coaches would prefer that it be done on a league-wide basis. Because some coaches will make them mandatory in practice but not in the game; the thinking is, particularly if you are a defensive back and your opponent is not wearing hip pads or knee pads and thigh pads, he arguably might be a little bit quicker. I think that is more a myth than anything else."
One potentially significant proposal forwarded by the committee and approved by the owners did not involve player safety.
"We proposed to amend the instant replay system to provide for a review – upstairs – of all scoring plays," Mara said. "The thinking being that the coaches are under a lot of pressure to throw the challenge flag anytime there is any kind of close scoring play. It results in some unnecessary challenges. We had some situations this year where coaches used two of their challenges, had none remaining, and a scoring play then appears to be incorrectly ruled on the field. Now, as soon as there is a score, there will be a quick booth review upstairs and the official upstairs will confirm that the score was legitimate or that it should be reviewed. When it is reviewed it will still be done by the referee on the field. But the replay official will make an initial determination as to whether or not it should be reviewed.
"We had initially submitted that and (said) we would take out the third (coach's) challenge. Right now the rule provides that if the coach is successful in the first two challenges he gets a third. We felt that given this change he wouldn't need the third challenge. But that got a lot of push back from the coaches. So it was submitted whereby the third challenge was retained. Going into next season you will still have the ability to get a third challenge. And all of the scoring plays will be reviewed. Right now the officials are told that if it is a close play, not to rush to spot the ball. But there is not going to be any need to even think about that now. Because the replay official is going to have the ability to do a review and determine whether or not the play needs to be reviewed by the official on the field."
For Mara, working on the Competition Committee has long been a labor of love, because he enjoys serving in a group that is so vital to the game. He particularly liked it this year, when he put in long hours as a member of the negotiating committee, whose talks with the players union did not result in a new collective bargaining agreement.
"It was great to be able to talk about the game and making the game better and safer," Mara said. "After having spent a couple of weeks in Washington in the mediation process, without getting basically anything accomplished, this was a welcome change of pace. I'm hoping that some of these rules, particularly if we get (the major proposal that hasn't yet been approved), will have a long term effect in reducing the amount of injuries, particularly to the head and neck area."