The good news is that there were no earth-shattering changes passed this offseason, and nothing that you couldn’t see coming from the way the rules have been slowly changing over the past few seasons.
The things that the NFL has made a priority in recent years—player safety, inherent fairness as in overtime rules and instant replay—have just been tweaked a little further and improved yet one more iteration.
So let’s take a look at each rule change that has been passed and analyze what it means going into the season.
Changing overtime so that the postseason rule will be used in the regular season as well
We all knew this was coming once the NFL tested out its proposed fairer overtime system in the playoffs. It was only a matter of time before it broadened its use to the regular season as well.
Everybody was agreed that it is a far fairer system, and the only downside to expanded use was the potential for additional time added to regular-season games that could have ended much sooner with that initial overtime score. The NFL has moved to combat that problem by pushing back the start of the afternoon games to accommodate the potential run-over from the early games.
In essence, all this means is that your team can’t be beaten by an ugly initial drive in overtime followed by a field goal. If you’re going down before getting a chance with the ball, it’s because you blew things on defense to the tune of a touchdown.
Applying the defenseless player rule to crack-back blocks
We’ll call this the Hines Ward Rule. In fitting tribute to the great Pittsburgh Steeler as he retires, the NFL has now made it illegal to hit a defender on a crack-back block to the head or neck area.
This rule would have prevented the breaking of Keith Rivers’ jaw in exactly that type of block—or, at the very least, given the Bengals the scant consolation of a penalty for the hit. Ward made a career out of big hits of this variety (in addition to 1,000 catches, in fairness…), and though he was called "dirty" by many, those blocks were perfectly legal at the time.
No more, as the NFL has expanded its quest to protect as many players from unseen hits as possible.
Though you will still be able to crack back on defenders and deliver big hits from their blind side, you will at least now have to steer clear of their head and neck area in the 2012 season.
Automatically reviewing turnovers by instant replay just like scoring plays
This might be the biggest change in the game this offseason and the one the fans should like to see the most. Instant replay has its critics—there are people who would like to see it removed from the game entirely—but most agree that it’s good for the game.
The more decisions it can help make correct, the better.
Prior to last season, the NFL made every scoring play an automatic review, working on the basis that they were such defining moments in a season that any one of them could be the difference between everything and nothing.
This season, they are doing the same for turnovers. Though they don’t have quite the same impact as scoring plays, turnovers aren’t far behind and are the only real moment outside of the score that has a consistent, strong and long-term correlation with the outcome of games.
Turnovers can be game-changing plays, and up until now, too many of them were being left without review. The NFL is right to make all turnovers automatically reviewable, and it should cut down on the number of horrible calls where a player did fumble the ball but was called down on the field, or other such plays.
Soft pads now mandatory for all players league-wide
This is a fairly pointless rule that upset many players but will ultimately have little real effect on anything. The NFL has now made the use of soft pads compulsory for all.
When you think of old games from the 1960s and 1970s, you see small white foam pads spilling out of every crevice of a player. They primarily consist of a pair of knee and thigh pads, hip pads and a tailbone pad, but the majority of players that value speed jettisoned all of them years ago in the pursuit of a more streamlined profile.
The NFL is trying to do everything it can—even only superficial gestures—to improve player safety and thus be less liable for damage to players and less likely to be sued at a later date. In reality, though, these soft pads do little to prevent any major injury.
Personally, I hated soft pads. They were uncomfortable and awkward, and I shed them as soon as they were issued them. I also never suffered a serious lower-body injury that those pads would have done anything to prevent.
In essence, they may prevent a few significant bruises each season, but nothing of any major consequence and certainly nothing that is leading to lawsuits. I can well understand the reluctance of players to comply with the rule from the outset.
However, these newly-instituted pads are some way short of the giant set of pads from back in the day. If you wear a set of Nike integrated pads, you are in compliance with the new law.
As much as some players will still hate to wear them, things could have been an awful lot worse in that regard. In reality, it isn’t going to change much; players will get used to the change and deal with it.
One player per team will be allowed to return from Injured Reserve to practice after Week 6 and to game action after Week 8
Essentially, this allows a team to rescue one player from I.R. rather than consigning him to the scrapheap for the season before training camp is over.
All too often, big-name and impact players get shut down because their respective team didn’t want to hold open their roster spot all season long without being able to play him.
Between the increase in roster sizes in the new CBA and this rule, teams will now be able to bring back a stud player without having to sacrificing that precious roster spot.
Think of Terrell Suggs—in previous seasons, the Ravens would need to make a decision soon about his recovery and how early they could expect him to return to action.
They would have to either move him to I.R. or sacrifice a roster spot to keep him active until his return. If they didn’t expect him back until November, then that would be wasting a roster spot for a couple of months.
Under the new rules, the team can put him to I.R. and then bring him back six weeks into the season if they feel his recovery is going well enough that he can contribute.
Even if he is still a few weeks away from returning at that point, it means they are only losing the roster spot for a couple of weeks rather than the majority of the season. This means fans might get to see some big names come back just as the season gets exciting, rather than having some of their favorite players shut down for the year before a ball has even been snapped.
The NFL trade deadline has been extended to Week 8 from Week 6
I’m not convinced the date was what was holding back the flurry of trades the NFL seems keen on generating. Maybe we’ll see a few more as teams have a better idea of where they stand in the NFL season by that point, but I wouldn’t expect a giant surge in trades.
Adoption of college rules regarding penalties of kicking a ball and too many men on the field
This is a fairly inconsequential pair of rules and will go entirely unnoticed by most fans over the season.
The penalty for kicking a ball—an extremely rare call—is now accompanied by a loss of down, and the rule for too many men on the field has been adjusted so that it can be called a dead-ball foul without the ball being snapped. Neither of these means much and are procedural as much as anything.