HOUSTON — No NFL players have come close to being suspended for illegal hits through five weeks of the season. The number of fines for such hits is down.
That’s an indication players are adjusting their tackling styles, well aware of the increasing emphasis on player safety. It hardly makes pro football the safest sport out there, and the rules remain fuzzy for many defensive players, including Bears star linebacker Brian Urlacher. He was penalized for what certainly appeared to be a shoulder-on-shoulder tackle on Tony Scheffler in Monday night’s victory by the Lions. One play later, Matthew Stafford hit Brandon Pettigrew for an 18-yard touchdown.
“I would never say there is no gray area,” NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “But on the field, officials are doing the job they should be.
“We are moving full speed with our emphasis on safety and on protecting defenseless players and we will be aggressive on protecting player safety, very protective. Certainly everyone will need more education as we go along and we will proceed on that.
“There have been fewer fines, but not significantly fewer. We have come nowhere near any suspension decisions and that is encouraging.”
Just under one year ago, the league clamped down on flagrant hits after a weekend of reckless tackling led to hefty fines for Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, New England safety Brandon Meriweather (now with Chicago) and Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson. In the offseason, owners passed rules suggested by the competition committee, which Anderson oversees along with Falcons Presiden t Rich McKay, that further protected defenseless players. That included attempts to eliminate launching at an opponent headfirst, among the most dangerous maneuvers in football — or any sport, for that matter.
The committee hoped coaches and players would readily adapt. Anderson and McKay are seeing evidence they have.
“It certainly appears players have lowered their targets, adjusted their play,” Anderson said. “We are seeing more fundamental tackling and we are encouraged by that.”
Following the 4½-month lockout, there was concern that such fundamentals would be lost as teams hurried to get playbooks installed, evaluate talent and prepare for the regular season. Instead, Anderson and McKay are seeing a safer game, albeit through only five weeks of a 17-week schedule.
“Certainly coaches are doing a better job coaching to the rules,” Anderson said. “Players seem to be playing to the rules better, and that also is encouraging.”
The most controversial rules change this year came in the kicking game, with kickoffs moved up to the 35-yard line. McKay notes that touchbacks are up more than the league anticipated, which also could be a function of good weather.
“It has not affected offensive production from a scoring standpoint,” he added with a sly smile.
No, it hasn’t:
—The 3,566 points scored through Week 5 are the most at this point of any season in NFL history.
—Total net yards per game (712.0) would be the highest for any season should it hold.
—Net yards passing per game (489.2) would be the highest of any season, too.
—The 46.31 points per game would be the second-highest average for a single season in NFL history (1948, 46.48).
While McKay said there has been no “backlash” regarding the kickoff rule and the subsequent reduction in returns, one of football’s most exciting and dangerous plays, he admitted: “We knew it was a change and it would be one that initially was not perceived positively. It was done 100 percent for safety reasons.”
Perhaps as notable — and noticeable — as the kickoff change has been the decision to conduct video reviews of every scoring play. The league’s goal has been to make it noninvasive and Anderson said the amount of delay time has been slightly down this season. He hoped it would be “neutral” and credits that reduction in delays to the mechanics of the system involving the replay booth and the referee.
The key should not be time saved, however, it should be getting calls right. Impetus for the change came because coaches of road teams were not always getting a fair shake when it came to replays made available in away stadiums.
One problem that could arise from reviewing every touchdown, field goal, safety and extra point is having on-field officials signal a score when in doubt, knowing the play will be reviewed.
“We’ve always worried that people will officiate based on replay, but there is no evidence at all of that,” McKay said.
One other item that came up this season was defensive players faking injuries to slow no-huddle offenses, something the New York Giants were accused of in their Week 2 victory over St. Louis. The league sent a memo to each team emphasizing the need to eliminate such tactics.
Anderson said that has not been an issue since.