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Falcons' McKay says concussions are down in NFL

Rich McKay, who is chairman of the league’s competition committee, says league is safer because of rules changes.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland earlier this week that he is retiring after just one season because he's worried about the effect football could have on his long-term health has once again shone the spotlight on player-safety in the NFL.

But the league seems reasonably pleased with the progress it has made in recent years in making a naturally violent game much safer than it once was.

During a conference call yesterday with reporters to go over the rule-change proposals that will be discussed at next week's league meeting in Phoenix, Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is the chairman of the league's competition committee, said known concussions decreased by 25 percent last season and are down 36 percent in the league since 2012.

McKay credited the rule changes made at the high school, college and pro level with respect to "targeting" defenseless players and cracking down on the use of the head/helmet as a tackling weapon for the decrease in concussions.

"We now have players who have come through high school and college and played their games under their targeting rules, and those players are now coming into our league and playing under a similar defenseless-player rule," McKay said. "And I think it's starting to show itself as players have adjusted in the way they play the game."

McKay also pointed out that fines for hits on defenseless players were down 63 percent last season.

"That's a really substantial drop," he said. "That shows players are conforming to the rules. Part of it is because they are growing up with rules that have changed the way they play the game."

The NFL appears to be running out of ways to make their game safer. Twenty-three rule proposals will be discussed and possibly voted on at next week's meeting. Eleven have to do with instant replay. Just four have to do with player safety, and most of them are relatively minor.

The most significant: The competition committee has recommended making it a penalty to hit a defenseless receiver in the head and neck area even on an interception. There were a few instances last seasons of safeties coming over and hitting a receiver in the head near the sideline during a pass play, even as another defensive player was intercepting the pass.

The competition committee also has recommended the outlawing of chop blocks by running backs who line up in the backfield, but go outside the tackle box and block a defensive player low when he is engaged with another offensive player.

Two teams - Miami and Baltimore - also have made minor player-safety proposals. The Dolphins want to see peel-back blocks outlawed anywhere on the field. The Ravens have proposed that it be illegal to push rushers on punt plays. It is already prohibited on field-goal attempts.

Two things that will not be changed at next week's meeting is the league's 25-year-old 12-team playoff format or the controversial Calvin Johnson rule that requires a receiver to maintain control of the football until after his postgame shower, or something close to that.

The league's definition of a catch got a lot of attention during the playoffs when an apparent catch by Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant late in their game with the Packers was ruled incomplete and helped Green Bay win.

McKay said the competition committee has made a recommendation with respect to the language of the rule, but no recommendation on changing the rule itself.

"We spent a lot of time looking at the language itself and looking at the plays," McKay said. "We just made some recommendations with respect to the language."

McKay said no team submitted a specific proposal to change the catch rule, and said it wasn't a big topic in the surveys teams filled out for the competition committee.

"In the language, we feel we can bring some clarity to the rule, which is a difficult rule because of the fact that you're dealing with boundaries," he said.

As far as the 11 instant-replay rule proposals, few if any of them are likely to get approved. They include the Patriots' proposal that every play during the course of a game be reviewable, to the Lions' recommendation that penalties be challengeable, to Tennessee wanting hits on defenseless receivers reviewable.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a longtime member of the competition committee, is vehemently opposed to the Patriots' proposal.

"We've discussed this at length," he said. "Head coaches would become the eighth official on the field. It would be our responsibility to decide whether these were fouls or not fouls. We don't want to go there. Our replay system was never designed to involve fouls. It's just not something that we [the competition committee] support."

The wackiest rule proposal came from the Indianapolis Colts, who have recommended that if a team scores a touchdown and goes for two and makes it, it be given a chance at a bonus point on a kick from midfield. Seriously.