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NFL owners expected to make drastic kickoff rules changes

Detroit's Sam Martin kicks off during the first

Detroit's Sam Martin kicks off during the first half against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 19, 2017. Photo Credit: AP / Kiichiro Sato

ATLANTA — NFL owners are expected to pass a measure that significantly changes kickoff rules in hopes of reducing injury rates on the play.

After seeing a spike in concussions on kickoffs in recent years, the league’s competition committee has created a series of new guidelines designed to reduce the frequency and severity of collisions. Among the changes:

• Players on the kicking team must line up no more than one yard behind where the kickoff is taken, thus eliminating a running start and reducing the speed at which contact is initiated on kickoff coverage.

• The wedge block has been eliminated. Only players who line up between their own 40 and the opponents’ 45-yard line can apply double-team blocks on opponents.

• When the ball goes into the end zone, it is automatically ruled a touchback.

The new kickoff rules are in addition to a regulation approved in March that prohibits all players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact with an opponent. While there had been speculation that the league might move to eliminate kickoffs altogether, the new rules represent a compromise aimed at keeping the play, which can be one of the most exciting in the game, while attempting to reduce the frequency of injuries because of the high-speed collisions.

While owners are expected to show a united front on the kickoff rules, a far more contentious issue may not result in a consensus. Owners are expected to discuss whether they should amend the rules regarding whether players should be required to stand during the national anthem before games. A handful of players, including Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, took a knee during the anthem to draw attention to racial injustice in the United States.

President Donald Trump last September criticized the players who took a knee or sat during the anthem, and some owners — including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Robert McNair of the Texans — strongly recommended that all their players stand. Jets chairman Christopher Johnson and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie are among the owners that have rebuffed suggestions that the players be required to stand.

It’s possible that no decision will be made regarding the current NFL regulation that stipulates that players “should stand” during the anthem. It’s also possible the owners may decide that each team ought to create its own set of guidelines.

The NFL Players Association has been outspoken in its support of players being able to take a knee or sit without fear of repercussions.

Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the anthem throughout the 2016 season, has yet to be signed by another club and is suing the NFL for collusion. Kaepernick is arguing that league owners have purposely refused to sign him because he won’t stand during the anthem.

League owners also are expected to discuss last week’s Supreme Court decision that paves the way for legalized gambling in the United States. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday wrote a letter to Congress, requesting that uniform guidelines be established throughout the country. Among his concerns: consumer protections, the ability to protect content and intellectual property, fans having access to reliable league data and law enforcement having the resources to “protect our fans and penalize bad actors here at home and abroad.”

Owners are set to approve the purchase of the Carolina Panthers by Pittsburgh businessman David Tepper, who has agreed to pay $2.2 billion to purchase the team. The Panthers were put up for sale last year by team owner Jerry Richardson, who has been accused of inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

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