The NFL owners are holding their usual meetings in Indianapolis, which means some rules changes are officially being passed for the 2011 season, or whatever ends up being the next season. This round of rule changes focuses in on safety issues, specifically penalties and other forms of discipline. As players have gotten bigger, hits have gotten nastier, and long term health has moved more to the forefront, the league has been working to reduce the level of physicality in the game, at least as it comes to hits.
These latest rules deal a lot with defenseless players. Until now the definition of a defenseless player has been defined as a receiver who has not had time to protect himself or has not become a runner, even if both feet are on the ground. A defenseless player can't be hit at or above the shoulders. This latest revision adds other players to the definition:
Defenseless players cannot be hit in the head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder. The definition of such players now includes those throwing a pass; attempting or completing a catch without having time to ward off or avoid contact; a runner whose forward progress has been stopped by a tackler; kickoff or punt returners while the ball is in the air; kickers or punters during a kick or a return; a quarterback during a change of possession; a player who receives a blindside block from a blocker moving toward his own end zone.
The league is also adding team fines to the discipline policy. If a team commits multiple flagrant hits that result in fines. For now the league will fine the team, but the league has not ruled out larger sanctions up to and including stripping clubs of draft picks. That's not official yet, but league VP Adolpho Birch wouldn't rule it out.
One potentially significant change is that hits to the head of a passer that are not considered "forcible" blows will not be penalized. The question would then be, what exactly is a "forcible" blow to the head?