Cowboys' Williams target of rule change

When the NFL outlawed the head slap, the synapse-numbing move popularized by Deacon Jones that rendered pass-blockers dazed and senseless, it didn't name the rule for the former Los Angeles Rams star.

But everyone knew it was the Hall of Fame defensive end, maybe the greatest pass-rusher in NFL history, who precipitated the sanctions with the terror he wrought.

Nowhere in the NFL officiating handbook, either, will you find reference to the so-called "Isaac Curtis Rule." It was incessant muggings of the former Cincinnati Bengals wideout by cornerbacks, however, that forced the league to deign receivers could not be hit once they were more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Earlier this year, when the NFL banned certain peel-back blocks against unsuspecting defenders, few specifically singled out Denver Broncos offensive tackle George Foster as a culprit. Unless you live in a cave, though, and never viewed any of the thousands of replays that graphically illustrate the cheap shot Foster used against Tony Williams, which broke the ankle of the Bengals defensive lineman, you know whose indiscretion served as catalyst for the new rule.

And so next week, when owners figure to expunge the "horse-collar" tackle, as they convene for two days of meetings in Washington, count on the banishment being known, at least temporarily, as the "Roy Williams Rule."

"I guess that I have arrived," the Dallas Cowboys safety said when apprised of the pending action against a technique that he has used since college.

Maybe so. But the horse-collar tackle that Williams perfected, perhaps to excess, appears to be going, going, almost gone. Most observers, including Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's powerful competition committee, think the horse-collar tackle is about to exit the game for good.

McKay has been around long enough to know the imprudence of trying to prognosticate the outcome of any NFL vote. But assuming the recommendation of the competition committee is brought to a roll call in Washington – the matter was tabled at the annual league meetings in Maui, Hawaii, just two months ago – sanctions against the horse-collar tackle are expected to be immediately enacted.

The tackle, in which a defender grabs onto a ball carrier or receiver by the inside of the shoulder pads from behind and then yanks him down, will result in a 15-yard penalty. To distinguish between a horse-collar tackle and a tackle that occurs during close, in-line play, the foul must occur at least 3 yards outside the "tackle box," essentially in the open field.

While Williams is hardly the lone defender in the league to employ the technique, the fact he seriously injured four players in 2004 while using the horse-collar move to drag them down in the secondary clearly provided the biggest impetus for outlawing the tackle.

In each of the four cases in which players were injured by Williams, the competition committee determined the Dallas safety had ignored the opportunity to make a more conventional tackle.

"There are some plays, maybe that fall into the gray area at times, that don't belong in our game," said Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, the other co-chairman of the competition committee. "And we've determined that's one of them."

The committee concluded, McKay said, there were six horse-collar tackles in '04 that resulted in serious injuries. The most infamous, of course, was Williams' much-reviewed drag-down tackle on Terrell Owens after a 20-yard reception. The play, in the 14th game of the year, resulted in a broken right leg and severely sprained ankle for the Philadelphia star, and sidelined him for the final two regular-season contests and the first two playoff outings. Owens returned, famously, for Super Bowl XXXIX, playing against the orders of the specialist who treated him, and with two surgical screws in his leg.

In the eyes of most observers, the tackle against Owens will forever serve as the incident that most affected the competition committee and forced a review of the technique. But it was not the only horse-collar tackle that resulted in a debilitating injury.

San Diego wide receiver Reche Caldwell is still rehabilitating from the torn right anterior cruciate ligament he sustained last Oct. 17, when he was tackled by Atlanta Falcons defensive back Aaron Beasley.

"It's like you're stopped in your tracks, first off, and then yanked back (violently)," said Caldwell, recalling the tackle that knocked him out for the final six games of the season. "The (torque) imposed on your body, with you going one way and then suddenly pulled the opposite direction and then down, is just too much."

In a league where players and coaches annually insist little is new under the sun, the horse-collar tackle isn't exactly a technique recently introduced. But there has been a convergence of events … the increased use of the horse-collar move in a league where form tackling is clearly a diminished skill, the recent spate of serious injuries, and the NFL's diligence in matters related to player safety … that directed new focus to it.

As with all rules changes, three-quarters of the NFL's 32 owners must vote for the horse-collar sanction for it to be approved. It appeared in March, at the meetings in Maui, that there were sufficient votes to adopt the rule. But the issue was tabled because there were still some issues with the language of the rule and the owners and the committee felt the verbiage needed to be refined.

Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who is believed to favor the horse-collar rule, was among those who sought more clarification.

"I think all of us are for the safety of the players … but you just can't indiscriminately pass that rule," Parcells said. "What about the running back (going) through the line? I mean, are you allowed to tackle him like that, or are the linemen not allowed to do that, either? Then how are (the linemen) going to get the guy? The obvious open-field case, like what happened with (Williams), OK, we want to protect the player, but how is that going to be officiated? To just say 'no horse collar at all,' that includes a lot of things."

McKay acknowledged the issue of the horse-collar tackle wasn't brought to the attention of the competition committee until just before the March league meetings, and thus did not receive as much review by the group as some other matters. It was not, for instance, discussed at the pre-draft scouting combine in February, where the committee typically huddles, and where rules changes often originate.

"It came to us sort of late in the going," McKay said. "So, in that sense, maybe it was better that it was (originally) tabled. We've had more time to tighten the language, and to take any ambiguity out of it. If you read the rule as it is now, and as it will be presented to the owners, it's pretty clear that it applies to open-field tackles. There shouldn't be any questions about that."

Even to this day, the competition committee has never spoken to Williams about the play. Still, the league appears poised to move forward with the horse-collar moratorium.

And Williams, a three-year veteran and former first-round draft choice, seems prepared to become the latest player to have his name unofficially affixed to a rules change. He also is resigned to having to alter at least one technique in his tackling repertoire.

"It doesn't bother me, but I think it's a crazy rule," Williams told the Dallas Morning News. "If an offensive player beats you, what other way is there to bring him down? You can't arm-tackle guys, because they're too big, too fast. There's only one open place to grab and bring him down if he's running away from you.

"Is it fair? No. But rules are rules. I'll deal with it."

Around the league
• The odds continue to improve that the San Francisco 49ers will have overall No. 1 draft choice Alex Smith signed to a contract well in advance of training camp. As ESPN.com reported last weekend, the two sides are very close on most of the monetary parameters of a deal and are working more now on crafting contract language. Agent Tom Condon of IMG Football surmised the contract will eventually be about 50 pages. Paraag Marathe, the chief negotiator for the team, pegged it at more like 70 pages in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle this week.

There is considerable minutiae to still cover, and in light of the Kellen Winslow incident, Condon and Marathe actually spent a lot of time this week working on injury protection language. How much progress has been made? There is some chance that Condon could travel to the Bay Area next week for face-to-face negotiations aimed at closing the deal. The contract will pay the former Utah quarterback more than Eli Manning received as the top pick in last year's draft, a deal that Condon also negotiated.

• Speaking of quarterback contracts, a little nugget here demonstrating just how tough it is to land a quality starter unless you draft one: The 30 starting quarterbacks for 2005 who can be projected with certainty, excluding the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers, have an average of 4.8 more seasons remaining on their current contracts. That's counting the upcoming campaign. No matter who wins the starting jobs for the Dolphins (Gus Frerotte or A.J. Feeley) or for the 49ers (it will take an upset for Smith not to start), that average will not be significantly affected. Which means, on average, the league's starters are under contract basically through the '09 season.

Twenty of the 32 teams figure to start quarterbacks that they originally drafted. Translation: You can't just go out, shake a tree, and expect a top-flight quarterback to tumble out of the branches. For the most part, starters are not available in free agency because the current trend is to sign quarterbacks to lengthy extensions before they ever get a sniff of the open market.

Michael Vick has 10 more years left on his contract. Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb each have nine seasons remaining. Peyton Manning has eight and Chad Pennington seven. Granted, some of those deals include "voidable" years, and none of the quarterbacks cited will ever see the end of their current contracts, because the salary cap ramifications will at some point mandate the deals be restructured. But that still doesn't diminish the point that nearly every team locks up its starting quarterback now for the long term.

Of the projected starters for '05, only two, Kurt Warner of Arizona and San Diego's Drew Brees, might be available in free agency next spring. Warner signed just a one-year deal with the Cardinals this spring to keep his future options open. Brees signed the one-year qualifying offer for a "franchise" quarterback, and the Chargers are not about to let him escape for free next spring. They will either sign him to an extension or use the "franchise" tag again to retain Brees' rights and then possibly trade him if they believe that 2004 first-rounder Philip Rivers is prepared to assume the starting job.

David Carr of Houston, the top overall choice in the 2002 draft, has reached performance levels that allow him to trigger a "void" in his contract, which temporarily means he is entering the final season of his deal. Temporarily because the Texans have the option of "buying back" the three voided years, with an $8 million bonus, and will definitely exercise that right.

• According to The NFL Network, the Denver Broncos have discussed with Jerry Rice the possibility of coming aboard as their No. 4 wide receiver. Uh, good luck in that thankless role, Jerry. It hardly seems a spot, after all, for a guy who is arguably the greatest player in NFL history. And here's why: In the 10 seasons in which Mike Shanahan has been the Denver head coach, the Broncos' fourth wide receivers have averaged 6.6 catches. Only twice in that stretch of abject futility has the No. 4 wideout in the Denver passing offense registered more than 10 catches. The last time a fourth wide receiver had double-digit catches was in 1996, when Rod Smith and Mike Sherrard, alternating as the Nos. 3 and 4 wideouts, had 16 receptions each. Over the ensuing eight seasons, the Broncos' No. 4 wideouts averaged a paltry 4.8 receptions.

But, you protest, Rice would be superior to any fourth wide receiver Shanahan has ever put on the field, right? Well, of course he would be. The fourth wide receiver spot in Denver has been filled, over the last several seasons, by a motley crew that has included guys such as Nate Jackson, Chris Cole, Scottie Montgomery, Travis McGriff and Marcus Nash, among others.

Yet in this era of the passing game, and with a head coach dubbed The Mastermind scribbling up plays, shouldn't the design of the Denver offense help to create opportunities for more receptions? Maybe so, but it hasn't happened, and the deficiency goes beyond the Broncos' fourth wideouts. Fact is, the No. 3 wide receivers in Denver over the last 10 seasons have averaged only 19.2 catches. Just three times since Shanahan arrived in 1995 has the third Broncos wide receiver posted more than 20 catches in a season.
Last year was one of those occasions, with rookie Darius Watts, a talented second-round draft pick, snagging 31 passes. Word is, Watts is having a very nice offseason, and seems ready to ratchet his game up a notch in 2005. So why take the chance of stunting his progress by bringing in Rice, and perhaps taking catches away from the youngster? And, let's face it, if Rice is on the roster, there is going to be some pressure to get him some catches. Rod Smith is 35 years old, entering his 11th season, and despite no tell-tale signs of erosion, he can't play forever. At some point in the near future, Watts projects to be the starter opposite explosive play-maker Ashley Lelie. This is a season to continue grooming Watts, not to slight him.

The prospect of adding Rice, to allow him to exit the game on his terms, is a nice one. It is hardly, though, a brainstorm without some flaws. Rice caught 30 balls in 2004, splitting time between Oakland and Seattle. The bet here is that, no matter what he is promised in Denver, he'd have a difficult time matching that reception total with the Broncos in '05.

• One of the several glitches with the Jerry Rice idea in Denver? As noted in this space last week, when discussing the future of former Philadelphia wideout Freddie Mitchell, on most NFL rosters, the No. 4 wide receiver has to play special teams.

That's not saying Rice wouldn't do so. But, honestly, can you even conjure up the image of Rice trying to fight off double-team blocking as the "gunner" on the punt coverage unit or throwing his body into the wedge to help stop a kickoff runback? At age 42, Rice shouldn't have to learn those kinds of new tricks, certainly not for the modest salary he figures to get.

And modest it likely would be, even in Denver, according to Rice's agent. Jim Steiner, who has represented Rice extraordinarily well and who is trying hard (but not embarrassingly hard) to line up a job for his client, acknowledged this week that the Broncos aren't likely to offer much more than the minimum base salary, $765,000, to sign Rice to a one-year deal. Rice, by the way, has already rejected a minimum offer from Tampa Bay, where, even after the disastrous results of last year, it seems coach Jon Gruden can never have enough old guys around.

• Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese aren't fretting enough yet over the broken hand suffered by starting tailback Chris Brown this week that they've reached for the panic button and are prepared to either bring back Eddie George or trade for Travis Henry as insurance policies. Early indications are that Brown, who rushed for 1,067 yards in his first season as a starter in 2004, will be recovered well in advance of the start of training camp.

There is quiet concern among some Titans staffers, however, about the ability of Brown – whose 4.9-yard average in '04 was the best for any back with over 1,000 yards – to hold up under the grind of a 16-game schedule. The Titans got spoiled by George, who in eight seasons with the club, never even missed a start, let alone a game. Brown, on the other hand, was sidelined for five games as a rookie and for another five in 2004.

The current Tennessee depth chart lists no fewer than eight tailbacks – Damien Nash, Jarrett Payton, Joe Smith, Anthony Charles, Walter Reyes, Terry Jackson, Corey Larkins and Ray Jackson – after Brown. That dubious octet totals one NFL appearance and zero rushing attempts.

• In a very short period of time, San Francisco first-year head coach Mike Nolan has done an excellent job addressing the 49ers' offensive line, a huge problem area in recent years. The 49ers signed former Buffalo Bills starter Jonas Jennings to take over at left tackle, a move that permitted the team to move former first-round tackle Kwame Harris to the right side, his more natural position. San Francisco shored up the guard spots and drafted nicely for depth.

But the best-made plans of Nolan and offensive line assistant George Warhop might come undone if center Jeremy Newberry can't play in 2005. The two-time Pro Bowl performer, who played in just one game last season because of surgery on his right knee, is having problems again. The knee has become inflamed and painful and there is legitimate concern Newberry's season, and maybe his career, is threatened by the latest flare-up. Nolan said Newberry has been presented three options: surgery that would sideline him for the year, a less-invasive procedure that would likely force him to miss at least the first month of the campaign, or rest and rehabilitation. A terrific interior player when healthy, Newberry is mulling his alternatives.

San Francisco, which was seeking an experienced backup center even before Newberry's woes began, is ramping up its efforts. Problem is, there simply isn't much out there on the free agent market, beyond older guys such as Jerry Fontenot and Gennaro DiNapoli.

If Newberry can't go, a fix might have to come from within the current roster. Eric Heitmann, normally a guard, and Scott Peters have been working at center. But the team's best option might be rookie David Baas, the 49ers' second-round draft pick. The former Michigan star was chosen to play guard. But he actually played center for the Wolverines for most of his senior season in 2004, and there were NFL scouts who felt he was the best snapper prospect in the entire draft.

• Most interesting angle on the Thursday trade in which the Broncos acquired three-time Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun from the Carolina Panthers, who were ready to dump him after June 1? The Broncos rolled the dice, consummating the trade without yet addressing Sauerbrun's desire to have the final three years of his contract reworked.

In his best humor, the testy Sauerbrun is no day at the beach. It will be interesting now to see how he reacts to the lack of attention Denver officials paid his contract requests. Sauerbrun is due $3.895 million between 2005-07, with base salaries of $1.2 million, $1.295 million and $1.4 million. He and agent David Canter wanted the Broncos to reduce those base salaries to the NFL minimums and pay the balance in a signing bonus. Didn't happen, and that can't have Sauerbrun, whose acquisition was already being panned by some Broncos veterans, too thrilled.

Word is that the Broncos, who backed off the deal for a few days when Sauerbrun made his request for up-front money, finally finished the trade when they heard that another unnamed team had suddenly become interested in dealing for the standout punter. Word is, too, that the Denver media should not expect, well, many words at all from Sauerbrun, who apparently blames the ink-stained wretches of the world for the passel of off-field woes he has experienced the last few years.

Said Canter: "Todd has an embargo on the media for the rest of his NFL career. He has been beaten up by the media for the past 10 years and he doesn't need that anymore." Uh, Earth to Sauerbrun: Few tears will be shed at the prospect of missing all those bon mots you've doled out during your league tenure.

The punter the Panthers received in the trade, Jason Baker, was a guy Carolina coaches had targeted as a potential free agent signing this spring until he re-upped in Denver.

• Last year, when Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow Sr. was investigating potential agents to represent his son, he surveyed friends around the league and queried them about who were the most notorious negotiators. And a lot of those contacts told him they hated dealing with brothers Carl and Kevin Poston, infamous in league circles for their scorched earth tactics. The elder Winslow surmised that having such tough guys at the bargaining table wasn't an altogether bad thing, and so the Postons were retained. And, at least in terms of the potential value of the contract they negotiated for Kellen Winslow II, they hammered out a whopper of a deal.

Fast forward a year, of course, with the younger Winslow facing season-ending knee surgery and a future that, even in the best-case scenario would be deemed uncertain, and the contract doesn't look nearly as good. Seems the Postons didn't account for the possibility that "The Soldier," or "The Warrior," or "The Chosen One" – choose the nickname you most like – might actually get hurt at some point, and lose the ability to collect much of the money in the deal. Yep, these are the same Postons who acknowledged they failed to carefully read the contract extension Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington signed a couple years ago. The contract that Arrington claims is missing $6.5 million. There's a moral here, we think. Something like, pick the best agent, not the most reviled. It's one that the elder Winslow had to learn the hard way.

• Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban must be awful sure of his abilities to keep players in line. This week alone, the Dolphins re-signed wide receiver David Boston, whose off-field issues have been well documented. Miami also added undrafted free agent safety Abram Elam of Kent State. In 2002, Elam was one of four Notre Dame players charged with sexual assault of a female student. He was subsequently convicted of felony sexual battery. Now comes word that Saban is prepared to welcome back His Weirdness, the erstwhile tailback Ricky Williams, after a year's hiatus. Here's hoping Saban's reputation as a disciplinarian is an apt assessment.

• Teams are just now beginning to get into the substantive evaluation of Manuel Wright, the former Southern California defensive tackle whose academic woes forced him to make himself available for the supplemental draft this summer.

But two personnel chiefs conceded to us that they have instructed their salary cap lieutenants to draw up a model that would permit them to squeeze Wright into their rookie allocation pool. That is an angle some fans forget about. Any franchise that selects Wright in the supplemental draft not only must forfeit a corresponding choice in the 2006 lottery but must also fit him into this year's rookie pool. The pool, essentially a cap within the cap, is the limit that teams can invest in their draft choices and undrafted free agents. Because there has yet to be an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, meaning signing bonuses can be prorated over just five years now, teams are going to have to exercise creativity in completing rookie contracts. Taking on another deal, like one with Wright, would only make the exercise that much more difficult.

As for his playing ability, and potential status in the supplemental draft, well, those who reported that Wright might be selected in the first round were sorely misguided. There's still a lot of film study to be done on Wright, and some teams will want to work him out, but most regard him as a possible fourth-round pick, certainly third round, tops. As for the Wright family member who suggested the youngster would "receive" a Range Rover as part of his representation agreement: The term receive might not be completely accurate. You might want to read the fine print once the payments start coming due.

Punts: When the Chicago Bears commence a minicamp this weekend, quarterback Rex Grossman will have to overcome physical and mental hurdles. Grossman is rehabbing from the anterior cruciate ligament injury that limited the former first-rounder to just three starts in 2004. And with new offensive coordinator Ron Turner now calling the shots, Grossman will be working off his third different playbook in three seasons in the NFL, and his fifth different offense in five years. … The New York Giants have already declared quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, acquired on waivers from Washington last week, will go to camp as the No. 2 guy on the depth chart, behind Eli Manning. The team is enamored with Hasselbeck's savvy, athleticism and deceptive arm strength. As noted here in the past, some Redskins coaches felt Hasselbeck was the best quarterback on their roster. … Kudos to the Philadelphia Eagles, who on Thursday signed standout defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to a four-year contract extension through 2010. Johnson is one of the best in the business, a great, creative mind with a deep satchel of blitz schemes. At age 64, it's just a shame no one discovered Johnson a decade or so ago, because the guess here is that he would have been a terrific head coach. By the way, this marks the second four-year extension for Johnson since 2002. … If Minnesota tailback Onterrio Smith is, indeed, sanctioned by the league, he will become the 18th player since 1995 to have been suspended for an entire season. … Seeking to upgrade their pass rush, the Cincinnati Bengals have flipped their starting defensive ends, with Justin Smith moving to the left side and Robert Geathers to the right. … How enamored are the St. Louis Rams of veteran linebacker Dexter Coakley, signed as a free agent only a day after his release by the Dallas Cowboys? Coach Mike Martz has already named Coakley a team captain. Coakley, by the way, will play the strong side spot in 2005 after eight seasons of mostly lining up at weak-side linebacker.

The last word: "It's a thin line between right and wrong. I think, at the core, you're probably talking about integrity. I took a few notches off my integrity, of who I am as a person. You get to the NFL and you magnify everything. This is your livelihood. This is what you dream about. This is what you always wanted to do. You're making good money, setting yourself up for life, and I didn't want that to end." – former linebacker Bill Romanowski, on his use of illegal supplements for much of his career

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.