Well, alrighty then! That's the opinion Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison put forth after the NFL owners unanimously voted on Tuesday to alter and expand the rulebook to further increase player safety (read: to make the idea of an 18-game schedule more palatable to those who need to buy in to the idea). No surprise there — in 2010 alone, Harrison was fined $100,000 for hits that the league considered outside the rules, and there are those who feel that the NFL is assembling a list of players to target and give zero tolerance, based on actual plays and officiating judgment calls.
At the latest meetings in Indianapolis, the owners took some time out from their anti-litigation propaganda and made a few important changes:
-- Defenders will no longer be penalized for collateral "grazing" of quarterbacks' helmets (a good move; we saw far too many ticky-tack penalties of this nature last season, and the NFL always defended the calls);
-- A 15-yard penalty will be enforced on anyone who leaves both his feet before contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent, delivering a blow to the helmet of his opponent with any part of his own helmet; and
-- The definition of a defenseless player was expanded to "those [players] throwing a pass; attempting or completing a catch without having time to ward off or avoid contact; a runner whose forward progress has been stopped by a tackler; kickoff or punt returners while the ball is in the air; kickers or punters during a kick or a return; a quarterback during a change of possession; a player who receives a blindside block from a blocker moving toward his own end zone."
In addition, the league has put forth the proposition that teams with multiple infractions (we may as well call this the "Pittsburgh Steelers Rule") will be dealt with more severely, with penalties up to and including the possible loss of draft picks.
"As a club's total increases to a certain threshold, we will enforce some ... payback to encourage clubs to stay below that threshold," league vice president Adolpho Birch said. "We're looking at a system similar to one we instituted a couple years ago with off-field conduct."
It's hard to argue with any rules that decrease the potential for serious injury, though some may question whether the NFL's motivation is more about schedule expansion and less about player safety. The problem may lie in the expanded definition of defenseless players — it seems that every time the judgment call ozone is expanded for officials, it takes about a full season before the refs figure it out — remember the supposed emphasis on horse-collar tackles a few years ago?
Based on the interpretation of the rules, we could be in for a scenario in which game officials are enforcing league disciplinary policy by way of making calls in which there is a limited or non-existent appeal process.
"This should permanently change the mentality of a defensive player trying to loosen the ball to change your target point," Competition Committee co-chairman and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay said after the vote. "There were too many hits in the last three years that were legal but were not ones we were comfortable that the player who got hit had any chance to protect himself."
Fair enough, but how far is too far, and how fairly and evenly will these standards be enforced? Far too often last season, we saw certain defenders, like Harrison and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, rack up violations for seemingly any kind of contact after one or two incidents outside the lines put them in the league's crosshairs. If the NFL is expanding a system that is still highly flawed at its core, it's possible that Harrison is doing more than just calling names.