Protecting receivers is a priority

The Ravens' Ray Lewis, right, was fined for this helmet-to-helmet hit on Chad Ochocinco last October. AP Photo/Nick Wass

In its continuing efforts to make pro football safer, the NFL's competition committee is proposing rule changes to lessen the blows on wide receivers.

At next week's owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., the committee wants to further cut down on the big hits on receivers who go over the middle to catch the ball. Under the change, receivers would be given more of a chance to defend themselves after completing a reception.

"The difference would be that currently the protection provided for the defenseless receiver ends when the receiver has completed the catch, meaning possession of the ball with two feet on the ground," competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay said. "We would propose language that would say that if a receiver has completed the catch and has not had time to protect himself, a defensive player is prohibited from launching into him in a way that causes the defensive player's helmet, face mask, shoulder or forearm to forcibly strike the receiver's head."

The penalty would be 15 yards for unnecessary roughness.

During the past week, the committee has watched tape after tape in which receivers caught the ball and didn't have a chance to protect themselves. What are highlights on ESPN are concussion blows to receivers.

I'm sure you will hear the chorus of retired players and fans complaining about how the league is ripping the heart out of the game. They'll say football is a contact sport and the league is trying to eliminate contact. I'll counter -- as will the committee -- that the damage to players nowadays needs to be fixed.

Players are bigger, stronger and faster, and hits are harder and more dangerous. All you have to do is see the scary reports about concussions and their aftereffects to come to that conclusion. Advocates of player safety have won the day. Complaints about concussions have reached the House of Representatives, and the league is working with players to find solutions.

Maybe it's difficult to accept that football still can be a hard-hitting sport, but the NFL needs to be smart about the hits. Defensive players complained about the rule changes to further protect the quarterback last season, but in protecting the quarterback against hits to the head and lunges at the knees, more starting quarterbacks lasted through the season, and the league prospered. Ten quarterbacks had 4,000-yard seasons. A dozen threw for 25 or more touchdowns.

Remember the outrage last spring when the league -- for safety reasons -- decided to stop the wedge-busting tactics on kickoffs? Without the dangerous wedge collusions, kickoff returns were just as exciting, and the change created by the new rule was hardly noticeable.

Each March, the league puts together videos for proposed rule changes and shows them to the assembled media at the owners meeting. Last year, the clips showed players injured in collisions caused by wedges. Anyone who saw the video came to the conclusion that wedges weren't needed.

Players suffered career-ending injuries from some of those hits. Some suffered concussions. Others suffered broken bones in their necks. That was an example of how making a change for safety didn't hurt the game.

"Last year, to the elimination of the three- or four-man wedge, at first we had some resistance," McKay said. "Then I thought the coaches kind of adopted it. Watching tape, we really liked the effect that it had and the fact it eliminated some situations that we thought were troubling.

"Our numbers, meaning our overall injury numbers, don't indicate that they're up. They're not up. They're certainly within the traditional numbers, and in some ways they are down. There is one thing I want to emphasize. It's not that player safety is being brought up because of the number [of injuries]; it's being brought up because we think it's important and we should always look for ways to make the game safer when we can."

In the years ahead, there will be more changes. Sure, the league has to be careful not to do too much too fast, but it is proceeding at a good pace. The NFL will never be touch football. But you sense that the current studies on concussions will lead to more dramatic changes.

Experts are studying how the cumulative effect of hits to the head in practices and minicamps might affect players. Expect future changes in how players prepare for the season.

Eliminating the three-point stance isn't a main topic for the committee at the moment, but in time, it might be. I'm not sure whether having one hand or two on the ground adds that much to the impact of the collisions, but all studies involving safety eventually will be on the table for discussion.

This year's emphasis will be protecting the receiver.

"We were looking at hits that occur in the open field and hits that occur to players that really do not have an opportunity to defend themselves," McKay said. "We looked at inline play and felt like that was pretty good. We didn't see a lot of instances in which there were situations created by rules or tactics that created a dangerous situation.

"So we looked more at the open field and more at the defenseless player and felt like in those areas we can get a little more consistent in the rules, we can be a little broader in the rules and we can try to provide a little more protection."

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.