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Safety remains a priority


PHOENIX – Gus Bradley's for keeping the NFL as safe as possible.

Which is why the Jaguars' first-year head coach liked hearing the most significant news from the last day of his first NFL owners meetings – that beginning next season, running backs must perhaps play a bit more cautiously.

"We were fine with it from the start," Bradley said Wednesday as the 2013 NFL Spring Meetings drew to a close at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Ariz.

"Anything regarding player safety is so critical. I think everybody understands that. As the game changes, you have to adjust to it."

The NFL made several rule changes Wednesday, including abolishing the "Tuck Rule" and installing the rule Bradley discussed, which mandates that a running back or defender in the open field – outside the tackle box – may not initiate contact with the crown of his helmet.

The league's owners voted on the changes Wednesday morning, with the crown-of-the-helmet rule passing 31-1. Infractions will carry a 15-yard penalty with a loss of down if committed by the offense and an automatic first down if called on the defense.

"It was extensively evaluated by every constituency that this league has," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "It is certainly a great example of the sensitivity we have throughout the league from the standpoint of coaching, clubs, management, the league to doing things to help protect our players."

Atlanta Falcons President and Chief Executive Officer Rich McKay said the league reviewed every play from Weeks 10 and 16 this past season, and found 11 plays that would be penalties under the new rule.

While the rule has drawn criticism from some current players, particularly running backs, the change was the latest in a series of rules promoting player health and safety, which – along with enhancing fan experience – was a major initiative at this year's meetings.

"I think the game has gotten safer over time," McKay, long-time co-chairman of the league's competition committee, said. "Where we've really focused on (previously) is the big hits, the open-field hits and where players can't defend themselves. I think in this step what we were doing is trying to protect the player from himself.

"I think the game from a safety standpoint is in a good place. That doesn't mean we can't do more and shouldn't do more in the future. But right now, I think we feel pretty comfortable where the game is."

St. Louis Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher, also a competition committee co-chair, said rule changes have had an impact, and said changes two years ago to promote touchbacks, for example, had the desired results.

"You see habits changing on the field," Fisher said.

The elimination of the tuck rule reverses a long-standing, controversial rule that went against the Oakland Raiders in a well-known loss to the New England Patriots in the 2001 postseason. Oakland and New England each abstained Wednesday and the vote passed 29-1.

The league also passed rules allowing reviews to occur when a head coach challenges a play automatically reviewed by the replay official; banning "peel back" blocks below the waist in the tackle box; making it legal for tight ends and H-backs to wear numbers between 40 and 49; and making it illegal for a defense to have more than six players on the line on either side of the long snapper on field goals and extra points.

The rule involving field goals and extra points, like the crown-of-helmet rule, focuses on player safety, an NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said will remain a focus.

 "These decisions aren't made in isolation," Goodell said. "They're made with a lot of input from current players, former players, current coaches, former coaches, general managers, fans -- you have to balance all of the issues, but I think we've demonstrated the game is safer and better. That's what we're proud of. We're going to continue to do that intelligently."

Also on the final day of the owners meetings:

*Bradley talked about his first owners meetings as a head coach: "It was great. You get a chance to sit through the process, and see how the whole process works. Then, you get a chance to meet on anything from the officiating, to rule changes, to OTA practices – the dos and don'ts – just a lot of good reminders. It was great."

*Goodell said league officials continued this week to discuss ways to improve the Pro Bowl, with one idea being to allow the current system of fans, coaches and players to select players with a so-called "draft" then selecting the teams. Under the idea, player "captains" might draft or choose participating teams after players had been selected. Goodell said the game will be played in Honolulu, Hawaii, before the Super Bowl this season, with Hawaii likely involved on a rotational basis going forward. "They clearly made a very positive effort with the way they played the game last year," said Goodell, who had expressed concern at the level of play in the previous year's Pro Bowl.

*Goodell said league officials also this week discussed improving the Rooney Rule, which encourages minority hiring. No minority head coaches were hired this offseason, which Goodell said was disappointing. Goodell said the league plans to reinstate its minority symposium program, expanding the program to include general-manager candidates as well as coaches, and he also said a major focus will be encouraging teams to allow assistants to interview for available jobs at various levels. Teams can block assistants under contract from interviewing for any position other than head coach. "We did talk a little about giving more flexibility when they asked for permission, that it's good practice to allow employees the opportunity to seek better opportunities," Goodell said. "I'm hopeful that teams will do that more voluntarily."

*Goodell said a priority remains enhancing the in-stadium, game-day experience, and while the primary responsibility is that of the individual teams, the league also will continue to focus on the area. "We're all feeling pressure to add value," he said. "We're fortunate that we're 98 percent capacity on a league-wide basis, which is obviously very positive, but we have to continue to find ways to get better. I think you'll see some very dramatic improvements."

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