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NFL modifies kickoff rules for safety reasons

Commissioner Roger Goodell, right, listens as Al Riveron,

Commissioner Roger Goodell, right, listens as Al Riveron, NFL senior vice president of officiating, answers a question from a reporter during a news conference at the NFL owners meetings on March 28 in Orlando, Fla. Credit: AP / Phelan M. Ebenhack

ATLANTA — NFL owners adopted rules for kickoffs Tuesday in an effort to reduce concussions and other injuries. The league also approved expanding instant replay to help decide if a player can be ejected for illegal hits or other violations.

The measures will take effect for the 2018 season. The kickoff rules were approved on a one-year basis, although owners could make the modifications permanent next year.

Owners also discussed national anthem protocol in the wake of criticism of players who have taken a knee or sat to protest racial injustice. Giants president and co-owner John Mara said discussions would resume Wednesday but offered no details of a potential agreement by the owners.

Players now may line up no more than a yard behind where the kickoff is taken, eliminating a running start and reducing the speed at which collisions occur. The new guidelines also disallow wedge blocks, and a touchback does not require recovering the ball in the end zone. Kickoffs still may be returned from the end zone.

Expanding replay to include potential ejection for flagrant hits adds to the emphasis against lowering the helmet to initiate contact. Owners in March unanimously approved a measure making that illegal. NFL director of officiating Al Riveron said there will be no adjustment period to the rule.

“No grace period,” Riveron said. “There’s no leniency. This is going to happen now. Lowering your head. We have to get it out.”

A player is subject to ejection for an egregious foul, but Riveron doesn’t expect a flurry of such calls. “It’s not going to be an ejection-fest, I guarantee you,” he said.

Riveron said only a handful of plays from last season reviewed by the officiating department and competition committee would have led to ejection. If a player deserves to be tossed, it will happen almost immediately and in consultation with the officiating department in New York.

Competition committee chairman Rich McKay said coaches will be responsible for teaching proper techniques to make sure players keep their heads up at almost all times.

“There will be plays where players lower their heads to defend themselves,” Riveron said. “That’s not a foul.”

Riveron hopes the NFL’s emphasis against not using the helmet as a weapon will spread throughout the sport. “This has to go to the NCAA, high school and the youth leagues,” he said. “It’s a culture change, and we’re taking responsibility.”

It is uncertain whether owners will change the guidelines for anthem protocol. A handful of players have knelt or sat the last two seasons, prompting criticism from President Trump.

There is a wide variety of opinions among the owners. The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Texans’ Robert McNair have suggested players must stand, while Jets chairman Christopher Johnson believes the league shouldn’t issue such a requirement. Current guidelines state the players should stand, and it’s uncertain whether the league would change that to “must stand.”

“The main thing we want to do is have our fans think about football, and we want them thinking about football,” Jones said. “Let’s put the focus on what the NFL is about, and that’s playing football.”

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