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If you listen to James Harrison, Asante Samuel and every other player outraged by the NFL's crackdown on dangerous hits, you'd think there's no way to legislate safety without ruining the character of the game. But of course, you can. Since 1905, when president Theodore Roosevelt led the charge to eliminate dangerous plays like the Flying Wedge, the keepers of football have constantly manipulated their rule book to make the game less violent or more entertaining. Most recently, the NFL has banned both the horse collar tackle and the three-man-or-more wedge -- and the game has somehow survived. Here are five more simple rule changes that would cut down on catastrophic injuries without cutting back on the good times.
RAMP UP ROSTERS
Right now, teams employ a 53-man active roster and an eight-man practice squad. But on game days, they suit up just 45 players and an emergency QB. This lack of depth is one reason pros feel pressure to play hurt and risk greater injury. Upping the roster to 60, the practice squad to 10 and game-day actives to 55 lessens that pressure. It doesn't seem too much to ask -- NCAA FBS teams can carry up to 85 scholarship players.
ADD AN ELIGIBLE RECEIVER
Increasing the number of eligible receivers from five to six sounds cosmetic, but it would actually be cosmic. Most zone defenses can't handle five receivers, so teams would have to develop full man-to-man schemes. This tilts the game toward smaller, faster defenders who can stick closer to their assignments. The upshot is fewer tackles by an oversize safety or linebacker who has worked up a full head of steam.
EXPAND THE NEUTRAL ZONE
Currently, the neutral zone is the width of a football, or less than a foot. Widening it to a yard would offer offensive linemen a slight advantage in protecting the QB, giving them more time and space to set up in a balanced stance and more time to engage defenders with their hands.
UNCLOG THE MIDDLE
NFL action flows primarily up the middle of the field, largely because the hash marks, where the ball is set before each play, are only 18 1/2 feet apart. Spread them to 40 feet, as the NCAA does, and you create almost 30 extra feet of space out wide. Separately, most NFL stadiums could easily accommodate a field that is 7 1/2 yards wider on either side. Those tweaks would give players more room to move and force D's to be more laterally proficient. And that calls for quicker, smaller players.
Simply placing the ball on the 25 after a score instantly ends one of the biggest dangers in the game: high-speed collisions during runbacks between fringe players who are incentivized to take risks. Of course, this rule would also eliminate one of the sport's most exciting plays. Well, if the pushback is too fierce, the league can always go back to the days of kicking off from the 35 (they start at the 30 now) and create more touchbacks. No one gets hurt during those.
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