The NFL changed a rule more than 30 years ago that became known as the Mel Blount Rule, and now Hines Ward might have one to call his own as well.
A rule to eliminate a blindside block to the head of a defender will be proposed at the league meetings, which begin Sunday in Dana Point, Calif.
Those proposing the rule acknowledged yesterday that Ward's block in October, which broke the jaw of rookie Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers, was among the plays reviewed when they drew it up.
"It's one of several plays we looked at, that's correct," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "Under this year's rules, that was a legal hit but we're trying to advance our player safety ... and that would be a flag play."
By that, Anderson meant that the hit raised a flag as to the new rules proposal, and even after viewing it on film they were not sure if Ward's would be a legal hit or not if the new rule passes.
The proposal, according to Anderson and competition committee co-chair Rich McKay, is to try to eliminate or penalize any helmet-to-helmet contact that occurs on a blindside block.
"We have people downfield -- tight ends, receivers or even linemen -- who head back to the line of scrimmage [to throw a block]," McKay said. "We're trying to protect that defender and so that you cannot block that defender in the head. We'd rather have the blocker attempt the block in the chest area, anywhere but the head."
It's not clear even by watching the video, the two NFL officials said, whether Ward's block was with his helmet or shoulder.
"I think there was some debate there," Anderson said. "Some of our eyes may have seen helmet to helmet, some may have seen shoulder to helmet."
Ward was neither penalized nor fined for the hit on Rivers.
"Certainly Hines' was one that was perfectly legal last year," Anderson said, "but as Rich said, the result of those types of hits led to the conclusion that for safety's sake, we want to eliminate those types of blindside hits if you will."
The NFL passed new rules in 1978 that benefited the passing game. Perhaps the major change was the one that become known as the "Mel Blount Rule" because defenders no longer could bump a receiver 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Previously, they could bump a receiver anywhere until the ball was in the air. Blount, a Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback, used his 6-foot-3, 205-pound size to overwhelm receivers before a pass was thrown.
McKay acknowledged that the competition committee focused on player safety when they came up with four of their seven rules proposals for the owners to consider next week. Another Steelers player might have helped inspire one of them.
Ryan Clark had celebrated hits on New England wide receiver Wes Welker and Baltimore running back Willis McGahee last season, which were decried by many but declared legal and never drew fines. Those might fall in a gray area if Rule Proposal No. 4 passes next week.
"In 1995, we passed a rule that allowed there to be protection for a defenseless receiver in the air, helmet to helmet," McKay said.
The new rule would expand that to include a hit with a forearm or shoulder to the head until the receiver has two feet on the ground.
"There were an awful lot of hits in the last couple of years that have been legal but very tough on the players," McKay said. "We're trying to expand that protection."
While Clark's hits came with his shoulder to the head, both receivers had their feet on the ground at the time, so that type of hit still might be legal if the new rule passes.
Other safety rules proposals involve the elimination of the "bunching" of players on onside kicks and limiting the number of players who can be used in a "wedge" on kickoff returns to two.
Some other minor rules adjustments will be considered, including a small expansion of plays that can be reviewed by replay. The owners also will continue to discuss expanding the regular season to 17 or 18 games but no decision can be made on that. The NFL Players Association would have to agree to such an expansion and that likely will be among the debates when the sides begin labor negotiations.
There is a proposal to change the draft order of teams involved in the playoffs, but there is little sentiment by players or club officials to change the NFL's overtime rules, the two league officials said yesterday.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.