March 13, 2008

Bowden: Proposed changes put safety first

If there is one thing that makes football stand out from other team sports in America, it is the physical contact. Unlike baseball, and basketball to a great extent, football requires contact often violent contact. You have to enjoy hitting people and not mind getting hit. Because of the contact, and not athletic ability, guys such as me could play the game.

Football is about hitting people and hitting them hard, and I don't want anything to take the contact out of the sport.

I can still hear my football coach yelling in my ear "knock him on his butt" "kick his fanny" "blow him off the line."

Unfortunately, I recall a few other phrases as well. Things such as "take his knee out" and "knock his head off." As a young head coach, I'm not so sure I didn't say some of those things myself.

Football is a sport about intentional contact. It is a sport about dangerous contact. But it should never be a sport about intentional dangerous contact.

Last month, the NCAA Football Rules Committee proposed changes that, among other things, would help promote safety. The committee addressed contact with the crown of the helmet, contact to the head area, horse-collar tackling and the chop block. Every one of these practices should be eliminated as quickly as possible. The proposed changes could help prevent a catastrophic injury, a dangerous concussion or a career-ending knee surgery.

The No. 1 responsibility of a head coach, legally, as well as morally, is to promote the health, safety and welfare of the student-athlete. I may have forgotten most of the things I learned in law school, but I assure you I didn't forget that. Before a coach even thinks about teaching his players how to chase a national championship, he needs to teach them how to play safely.

Rule-change proposals that address the issue of contact/injuries:

Officials will have more freedom to penalize players who initiate any contact with the crown of their helmet. The top of the helmet is the hardest, most unforgiving piece of equipment a player wears. It can be extremely dangerous to the opponent when used as a battering ram. More importantly, the most severe injuries in football are caused by a compression of the spinal cord that almost always comes when contact with the ground or another person is initiated with the top of the head. "Never duck your head" is truly the most important instruction in football.

Officials will have more freedom to penalize players who target defenseless opponents above the shoulders. This action causes concussions and nothing in football has more potential to cause permanent brain damage than a concussion. Most athletes who have had more than two or three concussions are being requested, if not required, to give up the sport. Sadly, there was a time not long ago when we encouraged athletes to go for the "knockout shot" to the head of the quarterback. We are still trying to recover from this dangerous and despicable practice.

Eliminating the unintentional face-mask penalty. I don't think this is a good idea. We can't make protecting the head area a point of emphasis then not follow through. Let's err on the side of safety even if the contact is unintentional and seldom causes any harm. Keep your hands away from the helmet area period.

Adjusting the "chop block" rule to make it easier to understand and enforce. There is an old saying in football "Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be noseguards." Noseguards get chopped blocked all the time and they are the guys who get their knees busted up. High-low combination blocks are never safe whether they occur simultaneously or not and inside the box or not. The pros quit doing this to each other years ago without even waiting for a rule to be implemented. I wouldn't be adverse to adding ejection to this penalty.

A penalty would be added for so-called horse-collar tackles. Let's just call this a common-sense decision based on the fact that it is intentionally dangerous contact and it can be easily avoided by the tackler. Besides, it looks really bush-league.

One of the first coaching points my old man taught me years ago is that you get what you demand. If the players are doing something wrong during the game, at some point during practice you didn't demand that they do it right. If the players show a pattern of unsafe play, it is the coach who must shoulder the responsibility. Coaches must remind themselves that their primary responsibility is not to win football games, but to protect their players.

Other rule changes being considered:

Administering a 40-second clock to start play after a preceding play ends, and starting the clock on a referee's signal after a play goes out of bounds. I don't really like any proposed rule changes inspired by network programming.

Giving the receiving team the option to take possession at the 40-yard line after an out-of-bounds kickoff. I love it because the field is 53 1/3 yards wide and if that kicker can't keep it between the sidelines, they ought to bring it out to the 40. We moved the kickoff back to the 35 to force the return and make the game more exciting, so make the kickoff team kick the ball down the middle.

Eliminating warnings for sideline control. Absolutely. If it is difficult to administrate the game with players and coaches crowding the sideline, then penalize them for it. The only reason they are crowding the sideline is because they know they can.

Instant replay would be allowed on fumbles leading to immediate recoveries. Anything we can do to make sure the outcome of a game is not based upon an incorrect call should be done.

A coach who successfully challenges a play would retain the right to make one more challenge, for a maximum of two. I don't like coach's challenges. If we believe that officials are competent professionals, then let the official up in the booth with the best viewpoint and the least subjectivity make the call whether to review the play or not.

Terry Bowden is Yahoo! Sports' college football analyst. Send Terry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.




 

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