DANA POINT, CA, March 24, 2009 — The NFL is taking the safe route.
Concerned about the rising number of penalties in the area of player safety, league owners passed four rules changes Tuesday. They will consider more of them on Wednesday.
"We're trying to make the game safer for the guy getting hit and the guy doing the hitting," director of officiating Mike Pereira said.
Among those guys was Tom Brady, who injured his knee when hit by Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard in the 2008 opener, costing Brady the rest of the season. That tackle, when Pollard was on the ground but lunged at Brady, was legal last season. It won't be in '09.
That adjustment was not a rule change and did not require an owners vote. But four other rules were adopted by the 32 teams:
-The initial force of a blindside block can't be delivered by a helmet, forearm or shoulder to an opponent's head or neck. An illegal blindside block will bring a 15-yard penalty.
-Initial contact to the head of a defenseless receiver also will draw a 15-yard penalty.
"Our clear movement is to getting out of the striking in the head area," Pereira said. "We're reading about injuries that say spinal and vertebrae. We've got to try something."
-On kickoffs, no blocking wedge of more than two players will be allowed. Again, it will be a 15-yard penalty.
-Also on kickoffs, the kicking team can't have more than five players bunched together pursuing an onside kick. That will cost a team 5 yards.
Pereira is especially concerned about the proliferation of horse-collar tackles. There were 24 called in 2008, up from 12 in '07, but there also were 47 league fines handed out for them.
"That's just too high a number," he said. "We have not been effective in terms of stopping the tactic."
Such tackles will be a point of emphasis with officiating crews in 2009.
So will holding penalties, on which the variance of calls from crew to crew has been huge. Pereira's office is compiling a tape that will be shown to officials, coaching staffs and players.
"It's one area we need to find consistency from crew to crew," he said.
He also lamented that NFL teams scout officials.
"You scout your opponents and you do the same with officials," Pereira said at the league meetings. "I think it's a shame, but they do look at things. How many holding calls or roughing-the-passer calls are made.
"Over the 15 games our officials have (to work), it should even up."
What did please Pereira, commissioner Roger Goodell and the two heads of the competition committee -- Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay and Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher -- was the sharp decrease in suspensions and fines for hits to the head, particularly when players launch themselves helmet first into an opponent.
Pereira noted that players tend to police themselves once the league starts fining or suspending them for illegal hits. Last season, there were two suspensions (Jets safety Eric Smith for hitting Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin, and Tampa Bay cornerback Elbert Mack for a tackle of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan) and a $25,000 fine (Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson for a hit on Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards) in the first five weeks of the schedule.
After that? None.
Asked about the ratings for each crew last year, Pereira said they averaged 98.1 percent accuracy, down slightly from 98.3 in 2007. Naturally, he wants that number as close to 100 percent as possible.
"We had some train wrecks and train wrecks hurt you," he said, referring to Ed Hoculi's blown call on Jay Cutler's fumble in a Week 2 game between Denver and San Diego, and to the Week 11 win by Pittsburgh over San Diego 11-10 in which a late Steelers touchdown wrongly was negated. "They hurt perception. It was hard getting through Week 2. That's what we have to avoid this year."
The owners could make that easier if they pass a rule Wednesday allowing video replay to be used to determine whether a play similar to Cutler's is an incomplete pass or a fumble.