NFL NOTEBOOK: NFL passes two big rules changes; Bears part ways with veteran star LB Urlacher

Photo by Damon Dillman

Photo by Damon Dillman

Although commissioner Roger Goodell declared Wednesday at the end of the NFL Annual Meeting that the league is a safer place, there was more controversy than peace over the passing of a key rule regarding backs leading with the crown of their helmet.

And even while approving another rule change, the removal of the infamous Tuck Rule, the vote itself reflected ongoing acrimony caused by the previous use of what some believe was an illogical and inexplicable call.

Still, league officials were agreeable enough to pass all six of the rules alterations proposed by the competition committee during the gathering in Phoenix.

Goodell said that the league is looking into possible changes to the Rooney Rule, which is supposed to encourage the hiring of minorities, and to the Pro Bowl. He also reported that he is continuing to negotiate with Major League Baseball to solve a scheduling conflict in Baltimore on the NFL’s opening day.

However, the furor over the selective ban on using the crown of the helmet was so intense that Goodell quickly yielded the podium to St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who head up the competition committee.

At least two Hall of Fame running backs -- Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk -- strongly deny that ball carriers will be safer playing under the new rule that bans forceful contact with the crown of the helmet when initiating a hit outside the tackle box.

“That is a ridiculous rule,” Smith said. “It will leave runners vulnerable to injury. Maybe we will need an asterisk for all running stats starting in 2013. It will change how backs run or there will be a lot of penalties.”

The votes were one-sided to pass the crown-of-the-helmet rule and rescind the Tuck Rule, which will now live in infamy as the call that allowed the New England Patriots to defeat the Oakland Raiders in a playoff game following the 2001 season.

The crown-of-helmet rule was approved 31-1, with only the Cincinnati Bengals offering opposition. The Tuck Rule passed 29-1, with the Pittsburgh Steelers voting against and the Patriots and Washington Redskins abstaining. The Patriots obviously wanted to avoid tainting that playoff victory. Washington’s thumbs down-vote was cast by general manager Bruce Allen, who was the GM with the Raiders in the Tuck Rule game.

Few people -- including coaches, players and league executives -- seemed to either understand or agree with the Tuck Rule, which was rarely called. Still, the enforcement of that rule on Jan. 9, 2002, changed history.

The game was at Foxboro Stadium. Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson appeared to have sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and caused a fumble that was recovered by Oakland. However, the sack and fumble were disallowed, and the play was declared an incomplete pass based on the Tuck Rule. The Patriots then kicked a game-tying field goal and went on to win in overtime.

As for the crown-of-the-helmet rule, Fisher believes players will be more accepting when it is explained in detail.

“This will not change how a runner charges into the line on short yardage or goal line. It is meant to address how players initiate contact in the open field,” Fisher told The Sports Xchange. “It is in (the players’) own interest.”

But even after hearing Fisher, Faulk did not agree.

“Jeff has not carried the ball and run as many times as we have, so he can’t know what it is like,” Faulk said in an interview on NFL Network. “Your run with your chin up, your eyes up, you will get hurt. Jeff also cannot know how the officials will call this rule. None of us do.”

The league had incentive to pass the rule because of concerns about current and possible future litigation.

Most coaches seem to believe the rule won’t have a major impact on the game, or they are dutifully marching to the league’s tune.

Denver Broncos coach John Fox said the rule won’t affect many plays.

“I think they are just trying to minimize those types of hits and penalize or even fine those hits that they deem not sportsmanlike,” Fox said. “I don’t think it will be a lot. It wasn’t a lot in the research. I think it was about 35 plays in the entire season. You get back to how you officiate it. These officials get put in tough spots, so we’ll see how that part goes.”

On Tuesday, the league passed one rule banning peel-back blocks and another preventing defenses from overloading one side of the field with more than six players on point-after and field-goal attempts.

The so-called “Jim Schwartz rule” on replays, which was altered Wednesday, derives its name from the Detroit Lions coach who threw a challenge flag that wiped out the referee’s automatic review of a scoring play. Houston Texans ball carrier Justin Forsett appeared to step out of bounds on a long touchdown run last Thanksgiving, but after Schwartz threw his challenge flag, officials were barred from viewing the replay.

Goodell said Wednesday that the Pro Bowl would be played in Hawaii the week before the 2014 Super Bowl, but where the game is played and how the players are selected may change after that.

The commissioner has voiced concerns about the quality of the Pro Bowl, and numerous changes are being considered, including more involvement with players selecting the participants. Other venues have also been discussed, including New Orleans, Miami and possibly the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

In the least momentous of the six rule changes, the league voted to allow tight ends and H-backs to wear uniform Nos. 40-49.

Bears, Urlacher part company

Brian Urlacher’s days as the face of the Chicago Bears’ franchise ended Wednesday.

The Bears issued a statement to announce negotiations with the unrestricted free agent weren’t fruitful, seemingly closing the book on Urlacher’s 13-year run with the Bears.

“We were unable to reach an agreement with Brian and both sides have decided to move forward,” said Bears general manager Phil Emery. “Brian has been an elite player in our league for over a decade. He showed great leadership and helped develop a winning culture over his time with the Bears. We appreciate all he has given our team, on and off the field. Brian will always be welcome as a member of the Bears.”

Emery is entering his second season as general manager in Chicago and was a college scout with the Bears when Urlacher was drafted ninth overall in 2000.

“Over the last 13 years Brian Urlacher has been an outstanding player, teammate, leader and face of our franchise,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said. “As Bears fans, we have been lucky to have such a humble superstar represent our city. He embodies the same characteristics displayed by the Bears all-time greats who played before him and he will eventually join many of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We thank Brian for all he has given our team and our city. He will always be a part of the Bears family. We wish him the very best.”

Reports early in free agency linked Urlacher to the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys. He turns 35 in May and since a knee injury at Minnesota on the season finale in 2011, faced questions about his health, age and diminishing skills. Urlacher had knee surgery at the outset of training camp last summer and missed time with a hamstring injury.

Urlacher was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and started 180 games in 13 seasons (2000-12) with the Bears recording a franchise-record 1,779 tackles.

He also had 41.5 sacks, 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles for Chicago.

Urlacher was honored as the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year, the 2000 NFL Rookie of the Year and was a four-time All-Pro (2001-02, 2005-06).