Breaking Down the NFL's Dumbest Rules, and How to Fix Them

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterDecember 5, 2012

The NFL's 2012 Rulebook and Casebook is a hefty 120-page block of legal granite. Eighteen "rules," each comprised of multiple "sections" and "articles," many explained by "notes" and clarified with hypothetical "acceptable rulings." Sculpted with a legal chisel and empirical hammer, even the most dedicated NFL coach, player, fan—or official—can suffocate under its weight.

Every season, the league comes up with new "points of emphasis" to reduce dangerous or ugly play. Every season, players and coaches push the rules to their breaking point, looking for an advantage. Every season, new notes and rulings and clauses and supplements are added to close loopholes, fill gaps or account for something that went horribly wrong the season before.

Every season, something else goes horribly wrong.

Over time, these patches and fixes and clarifications can confound and contradict each other, creating a mess only lawyers could sort out—that's why so many refs are lawyers. But sometimes, our legal system produces outcomes that make absolutely no sense, and lately, it's the case with the NFL, too.

NFL fans don't want the game they've loved and played all their lives ruled by quasi-courtroom procedure, faux-legal "case" law or mock appeals processes. They want their football decided by the players and coaches, not by obscure and stupid rules.

Here are some of the very dumbest rules in the NFL and how to fix them.


The Forbidden Challenge Double-Whammy

On Thanksgiving, the nation, and especially Lions fans, got a cruel introduction to two little-known rules. First, a coach who initiates a challenge on an automatically reviewed play, or a play that cannot be reviewed, gets hit with a 15-yard penalty. Second, a team that would benefit from a review but commits a foul during the review process gets no review.

So when Texans running back Justin Forsett wasn't whistled "down," despite being very clearly down, and got up and sprinted to the end zone, Jim Schwartz instinctively threw his flag out of disgust at the sheer awfulness of the call—these two dumb rules made that call irreversible:

In isolation, both of these rules make sense.

In the first case, coaches were beginning to throw challenge flags on plays they knew full well weren't reviewable, just to give the officials an earful; that delays the game and shouldn't be allowed. In the second, if a team was waiting for the booth official to initiate a review of a scoring play, it could commit encroachment on the extra point and buy a little more time for the man upstairs.

But taken together, it's a vicious double-whammy. The NFL can't instruct referees to be slow with their whistles and rely on replay, then make plays retroactively nonreviewable. Fiascoes like this, and screaming, booing, jeering mobs wondering if the game is rigged will result.


For That Matter, Timeout-Limited Challenges

Back when every play was reviewable by a booth official with a wall of '80s-era video toasters and curved-tube televisions, NFL games regularly ground to a halt while an invisible zebra in the rafters messed with the "forward" and "rewind" buttons. Eventually, the magic of instant replay was deemed not worth the wait.

When the NFL re-adopted replay, it instituted the coach-challenge system, tying available challenges to available timeouts. The league made many specific "judgement plays" non-reviewable and made the on-field ref responsible for watching the footage. It was all designed to catch the most egregious mistakes, without making games drag on and on.

Today, the strict time limit seems to be observed only by coincidence; replays take as long as they take. Turns out watching a guy watch TV under a hood isn't any more exciting than watching 22 guys staring at the press box.

Plus, modern video technology—both in the home and in the press box—has made real-time review much more convenient. Viewers at home often know the right outcome before the official does. Furthermore, many of the most egregious and inconsistent referee decisions are the "judgement calls" that can't be reviewed.

The debacles with the replacement referees taught us several lessons about officiating, as Bleacher Report's Dan Levy wrote. One of them is that there's no limit to the number of mistakes officials make, so there shouldn't be any limit to challenges, either. "Judgement calls" like holding and pass interference are still supposed to be based on objective standards. Why can't they be reviewed?

Let coaches challenge anything and make as many challenges as they have timeouts—and after that?

If they're wrong, then hit them with a 15-yard penalty.


The "Simultaneous Catch" Rule

Speaking of replacement refs, their swan song was a disastrous interpretation of an obscure rule. It ruined the dramatic ending of a great Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. The call on the field looked something like this:

What the official signalling "touchdown" was thinking was the "Simultaneous Catch" rule. Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5:

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.

The biggest mistake the official made was looking at this catch:

...and ruling Golden Tate and M.D. Jennings caught the ball simultaneously. But then again, what would a "simultaneous catch" look like, exactly? Have two opposing players ever caught the ball at the same time, then possessed it equally all the way to the ground? This rule not only makes no sense, but it's directly contradicted by the next rule in the book:

"Article 4   Incomplete Pass. Any forward pass (legal or illegal) is incomplete and the ball is dead immediately if the pass strikes the ground or goes out of bounds. An incomplete pass is a loss of down, and the ball returns to the previous spot.

Note: If there is any question about whether a forward pass is complete, intercepted, or incomplete, it is to be ruled incomplete [emphasis original].

To twist the old saw about quarterbacks: If you have two catchers, you don't have one. Disregarding the offensive pass interference the NFL said should have been called (though by custom, it never is on Hail Mary-type passes), this should be the rule in force: In cases of apparent multiple possession, rule it incomplete and let the challenge/review system work it out.


The Free Play Unless-it's-Not

The "Free Play" is one of the classic ways quarterbacks with great game intelligence separate themselves. If a defensive lineman is called offside at the snap, a heads-up quarterback can take a free shot at the end zone, knowing if anything goes wrong, the team can just accept the penalty.

Nobody loves free plays quite like Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert notes that since the start of the 2011 season, nobody has attempted more downfield passes in free-play situations than Rodgers.

But a recent rule allows the refs to blow the play dead when a lineman jumps offside, even if the ball hasn't been snapped and he hasn't encroached on another player. Rule 7, Section 4, Article 4:

"Article 4   Neutral Zone Infraction. It is a Neutral Zone Infraction when:

a) a defender moves beyond the neutral zone prior to the snap and is parallel to or beyond an offensive lineman, with an unabated path to the quarterback or kicker, even though no contact is made by a blocker; officials are to blow their whistles immediately"

This directly contradicts almost all of Rule 7-4-3; they might as well not have bothered describing offsides. This rule all but eliminates free plays, and as receiver Jordy Nelson told CBS Sports, the Packers practice free plays and don't appreciate being short-circuited:

We love those (free plays). We get mad when (referees) blow the whistle. That's something that we do. We work on it in practice. I mean, any time it comes up we do what we're supposed to do.

It's a free play, so we take a shot, and we were able to connect on two of them and make big plays to start and finish the game.

This is supposed to be a safety change, but all it does is put the burden on the refs to decide which teams get free plays and which teams don't—and puts defenders in hot water for doing something that isn't a foul by any other rule.


Overtime Clause

Finally, the dumbest rule in the NFL: the new overtime procedures.

According to Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Statistics, the old coin-flip-then-pure-sudden-death format gave the coin-flip winner a 61-percent-to-39-percent probability advantage over the coin-flip loser.

With the new, complicated modifiers to the format, Burke estimated that advantage would drop to... 56/44. An improvement, but nowhere near the 50/50 ideal. Worse yet, the new rules are much more complicated than the designers intended; TV broadcasters must constantly update the home audience with screen graphics reminding us what each team needs to do to win.

In fact, Burke took a crack at modeling the new overtime based on now-available data and said it "may have been the most difficult, challenging analysis" he's ever done. Turns out, the varying "states" the game and team can be in make for some very complex and counterintuitive possibilities.

That is not progress.

NFL coaches still struggle with basic decisions like not punting when within their opponent's 40-yard line; it'll be years before data and analysis can properly model the possibilities, let alone have those models be adopted by coaches. 

The rule should be simplified. There are two easy solutions: 1. Take up Burke's original suggestion to keep it pure sudden death, eliminate the coin toss and always start overtime with the ball on the offense's 20 (where the Win Probability evens out to 50/50), 2. Make the first team to score six points in overtime the winner.

The "race to six" neatly solves the problem of losing on a cheap field goal and doesn't eliminate any of the three phases of the game. Both teams know "what they need to do" from the beginning, so that isn't an issue, either.

Either option would be a massive improvement over the hastily considered, poorly understood option the NFL chose.


Any Suggestions?

Know of any other dumb NFL rules that need changing? Leave 'em in the comments!


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