No, the name of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison wasn't mentioned even once during a Wednesday morning conference call with the media to preview the agenda for next week's annual league meeting in New Orleans. But rest assured, the Steelers' star, who was fined over $125,000 in 2010 for what the NFL considered excessive or illegal hits, was clearly the elephant in the room.
And while neither NFL vice president Ray Anderson nor Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the influential competition committee, singled out Harrison for note while discussing rules changes or point of emphasis for 2011, the seven-year veteran was certainly on everyone's mind.
The league will attempt to debunk the notion that Harrison was the principle reason for the point of emphasis. But anyone who participated in the conference call would agree that the "James Harrison Rule" will become the common nomenclature for the attention paid to toughening sanctions against players for hits deemed as illegal.
Anderson in particular emphasized the need for "more aggressive protection of 'defenseless' players," and strongly suggested that suspensions for repeat offenders may be far more prominent in '11. Anderson said there is "clear acknowledgement" the NFL needs to be more aggressive in meting out punishment for the hits and said the action has the "strong support" of the competition committee.
The league's defensive player of the year in 2008, and a third-place finisher for the award last season to teammate Troy Polamalu, Harrison escaped suspension in 2010. He and other players -- there were no contact-related suspensions last season -- may not be so fortunate in 2011.
Anderson allowed that one reason for the lack of suspensions in 2010 was that the league felt that it might not have clearly communicated its intentions or sufficiently educated players.
"Everyone will be very clearly on notice that a suspension is very viable for us," Anderson said, suggesting suspensions will be "an effective discipline."
Harrison and others will not start the 2011 campaign with a "clean slate," either. The league will go back two years, Anderson said, to define repeat offenders.
Not surprisingly, given the recent reports on concussions and head injuries, and the long-term ramifications of both, much of the conference call and the football-related discussions in New Orleans, will center on player safety. McKay revealed that the competition committee will formally propose several changes for kickoffs: moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line (it was pushed back to the 30-yard line in 1999); mandating that kick coverage defenders line up no deeper than the 30-yard line, to shorten their head start; placing touchbacks at the 25-yard line; and outlawing the use of the "wedge" altogether for kickoff returns.
It marks the second rules change involving kickoffs in three seasons. In 2009, the NFL forbade "wedge" blocking patterns involving more than two players.
The competition committee has for the last several years focused on kickoffs as being a dangerous play with the potential for serious injuries. Said McKay: "It is a real concern."
In another competition committee move, the group proposed that all scoring plays be reviewable, and eliminated a third potential review challenge.
There are, McKay and Anderson agreed, fewer proposals involving rules changes than in past years. McKay said that, after meeting in Naples, Fla., for the past week, as is typically the case before the league's annual caucus, the competition committee agreed the game "is in pretty good stead."
Whether James Harrison remains in pretty good standing, at least throughout the 2011 season, remains to be seen.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.)