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Skirts next? Head coaches don't think so

3/25/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

DANA POINT, Calif. -- The first NFL assistant coach I called to discuss the recently adopted player-safety measures greeted them with a forearm shiver.

"We've got too many guys wearing suits and ties making the decisions on these things," he said. "You watch, the players will be wearing skirts next year."

Well, then. That would seem to be an appropriate jumping-off point for our discussion.

Item: Outlaw the "wedge" on kickoffs

The new rule prevents more than two players from forming a blocking wedge during kickoff returns. Proponents pointed to higher injury rate -- including spinal injuries -- during returns. Teams are using bigger players in the blocking wedge, leading to more violent collisions, proponents said.

"You know, I don't see it [the new wedge rule] as a big deal, to be truthful," Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "You can't have a four-man wedge, but you can still have two. So you can pretty much do the same thing.

"And I think, in general, we should always look to protect the players, but in the end, even with wedges, you end up getting in a one-on-one or at least a two-on-one situation. You very seldom see three guys hitting one player. I think it will help but I think it's something you can definitely work through."

Sando's take: Smith probably doesn't care because the Bears haven't been a four-man wedge team. The Giants, Cowboys, Seahawks and Redskins might see things differently. They were wedge teams, as were the Colts under special teams coach Russ Purnell, now with the Jaguars. Coverage teams are using more motion and deception in their schemes, complicating efforts at man blocking in the return game. The wedge facilitated zone blocking on returns. Teams will have to adjust. Multiple two-man wedges could help.

Item: No more bunching players for onside kicks

The new rule, designed to reduce violent collisions involving large numbers of players, requires teams to line up at least four players on each side of the kicker at kickoff. Three of the four must be lined up outside the hash. One of those three must be lined up outside the yard-line number.

"I lost two players on one of those bunch plays on an onside kick," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "You don't want to lose two guys when you don't have to lose them. Our guys had a serious concussion and a broken femur -- on one play."

Sando's take: This change makes sense. Kickers are producing onside kicks with significant hang time. On offense, a wide receiver can sprout alligator arms to avoid a collision without necessarily conceding possession. The onside kick provides no such protections. The receiving team must field the ball or lose possession, often during a critical situation. This change should promote safety.

Item: Protect blockers from a helmet-to-helmet hit from the blind side

This rule allows officials to assess a 15-yard penalty against teams whose players deliver blind-side blocks to the head of a defender using the helmet, forearm or shoulder.

"All you've got to say is the word 'blindside,'" Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "Would you hit a blind man? That paints the picture right there, doesn't it? Doesn't sound fair to me.

"When they're carting guys off on stretchers, it might be a highlight-reel hit, but we're still talking about human beings. It's a violent game, at best. But when there are broken necks, broken shoulders, you don't want to see that."

Sando's take: Childress makes a compelling case, but I wonder about enforcement. Officials have a hard enough time determining whether blocks occur from behind or the side. Now we're introducing additional variables. This one seems destined to invite controversy.

Item: Provide additional protections for defenseless receivers

The new rule asks officials to call unnecessary roughness when defenders hit defenseless receivers in the head or neck with a helmet, forearm or shoulder. The rule previously applied only to hits with the helmet.

"I think all those rules that are put in to protect the safety of the player, I think they are good," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I think it's going to be difficult in a lot of cases for the officials to officiate them, but I do think the emphasis that the league is trying to make on protecting the players makes sense to me.

"You ask any player. They don't want to hurt another player. They want to play physical and they want to win the game and they want to jar the ball loose from the receiver when he catches it, but I think we all coach with the intent of helping player safety."

Sando's take: This rule could help offenses open up the middle of the field even more. Expect controversy if 15-yard penalties during critical situations turn highlight-reel hits into chip-shot field goals to decide games.