NFL owners unanimously approved a new catch rule Tuesday, a change designed specifically to avoid a handful of controversies that have vexed the league for most of this decade. Owners also approved three other rule changes, granting authority to senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron to eject players for non-football acts — even if it means overruling on-field referees — and making permanent a temporary rule that put touchbacks after kickoffs at the 25-yard line.

They also unexpectedly passed a rule that will expand penalties for contact involving helmets, one that is more significant and far-reaching than the NCAA’s targeting rule. Under the change, a player will be penalized 15 yards and potentially ejected any time he lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. It will apply to tacklers, ball carriers and even linemen, and it will take the place of a previous rule that limited the penalty to contact with the crown of the helmet.

The catch rule, proposed by the league’s competition committee at the behest of commissioner Roger Goodell, will eliminate the requirement to maintain control of the ball throughout the process of going to the ground. Instead, it will define a catch with a simpler three-step process: A receiver must control the ball, establish himself in bounds and perform a football move such as taking a third step or lunging with the ball in hand.

Most important to the league, the change means that plays such as those involving Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson (2010) and Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (2014) will be ruled catches in the future. Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James, who had a touchdown overturned in the final seconds of a December loss to the New England Patriots because he didn’t “survive the ground,” applauded the rule change.

Riveron said earlier this week that “we’ve basically rewritten the rule.” Even so, the change is not likely to eliminate all controversies surrounding the catch. Former NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino suggested earlier this month to expect a swap of debates. “If the receiver performs an act common to the game,” Blandino said, “if he performs a football move, whatever you want to call it, on the way to the ground, if you say that supersedes him having to hold the ball all the way to the ground, then that adds another layer of judgment for the official and in replay. You’re just shifting the debate from, ‘Was he going to the ground and did he hold on to it?’ to ‘Did he make a football move?'”

The rule to allow in-game ejections from the league’s officiating office was designed to address egregious hits last season by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans in separate incidents. Both were penalized 15 yards, but referees declined to eject them. Referees will retain the authority to eject players as necessary. The New York Jets, meanwhile, withdrew a proposal to make all defensive pass interference penalties 15 yards.

The NCAA’s targeting rule penalizes players only when they hit opponents who are in a defenseless position. It calls for mandatory ejections, but the NFL’s competition committee has not yet addressed how ejections would be adjudicated, according to chairman Rich McKay. There is little doubt, however, that the NFL is determined to aggressively address a 2017 season that included 291 concussions, its highest total on record, and a severe spine injury to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on a play that would fall under the new rule.

According to NFL research, nearly one out of every two helmet-to-helmet hits caused a concussion in 2017. That’s up from a ratio of one out of every three in 2015. NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills said in February that the current concussion data had sparked a “call to action,” and on Tuesday he said this rule would be a key part of reducing head injuries in 2018.

The competition committee initially planned to make lowering the helmet a 2018 point of emphasis rather than a rule change, McKay said. But after a leaguewide discussion Tuesday, owners instructed McKay to convert it to language that could be added to the rule book immediately. The league called a late-afternoon news conference and acknowledged that some parts of the rule still must be fleshed out.

At the top of the list is how to merge a long-standing league ethos against two issues: wide-ranging ejections of players; and using replay to review what are considered subjective calls by officials. McKay said the league is trying to effect a change in “behavior” and thus likely needs the weight of an ejection to communicate its sincerity. And given the potential impact on a game, a replay review is almost certain to be necessary to ensure proper enforcement.

The NFL will spend the next two months further developing the rule and likely will alter it to address replay and ejections at its May 21-23 meetings in Atlanta.

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