Everything You Need to Know About the NFL's Rule Changes
Every year during the pre-spring doldrums around the NFL, team brass convene to show the world that football is a year-round sport that needs constant attention. And who’s to argue?
During these meetings the NFL competition committee announces rule changes that the league plans to install during the following season. Sometimes this process is a snooze fest, but recently there’s been a lot of debate surrounding these new rules.
The changes made to the rulebook at the 2013 Annual League Meeting in Phoenix brought on some serious fireworks.
The league passed six new rules this year.
It eliminated the “Tuck Rule,” changed the way special teams units could rush the kicker during field goals and extra points, banned “peel-back” blocks, changed part of the rules for head coaches when throwing challenge flags, altered the allowable jersey numbers for some position players and passed a rule disallowing ball-carriers from initiating contact with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box.
How will these changes affect the game?
Rule Change No. 1: Challenging a Reviewable Play Is No Longer a Penalty
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There were two occasions in the 2012 season where head coaches threw challenge flags when the play on the field would have automatically been reviewed.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith was the first guilty party. Smith threw his red challenge flag after running back Jason Snelling fumbled the football apparently out of bounds. But Arizona Cardinals defensive back Greg Toler grabbed the ball in the nick of time and tossed it back in for Arizona to recover. Or did he?
Because Smith challenged the play instead of letting the booth automatically review the play (all turnovers get reviewed), he was penalized, and the play became unreviewable.
Less than a week later Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged an 81-yard touchdown run by Houston Texans running back Justin Forsett. Since it was a scoring play, rules state that it would be automatically reviewed. But Schwartz threw his challenge flag and received a penalty, and the use of replay was negated.
The play would have been reversed because Forsett’s knee and elbow clearly touched the ground, but coaches aren’t allowed to throw challenge flags on reviewable plays.
At least they weren’t allowed to in the past.
The new rule states that if a play is automatically reviewable by league rules, the officiating crew will proceed in looking at the replay, regardless of whether a coach has thrown a challenge flag.
The rule has been nicknamed the “Jim Schwartz Rule,” and justice has been restored.
Rule Change No. 2: Teams Can No Longer Overload One Side While Rushing a FG
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Here we have the first player-safety rule change, and this one should help offensive linemen and greatly enhance kicking percentages.
When the defense attempts to block a placed kick (PAT or field goal), no member of the defense can stand over the long snapper. In fact, the defensive player has to be outside the shoulder of the long snapper on both sides.
In addition to that portion of the rule protecting the long snapper, who has his head down for the duration of the pre-snap and snap, the new rule also changes how defenses can align to block a kick.
No more than six players can be on any one side of the center when trying to block a kick. This will keep teams from overloading to one side in an attempt to get a hand on the football. It may also cut down on fake field-goal attempts to the side of the field away from the overload.
The final portion of rule change No. 2 disallows defensive players from pushing one another into offensive linemen. Breaking this rule now carries a 15-yard penalty.
Rule Change No. 3: Elimination of the 'Tuck Rule'
Fans of the Oakland Raiders can rejoice after the NFL decided to eliminate the “Tuck Rule.” If only the league had come to its senses 11 years ago.
On Jan. 19, 2002, the Raiders were in Foxborough, Mass., to play the New England Patriots in the playoffs and held a 13-10 lead with just 1:47 to play. Just three years earlier, a new rule had been instituted stating that when a player holds the ball in an attempt to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if that player loses the football as he attempts to tuck it back into his body.
In the driving snow, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady fumbled the football, which Oakland recovered. With under two minutes to play, the Raiders thought they had the playoff win wrapped up.
But officials reviewed the play and reversed the call, citing NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2—the "Tuck Rule." The Patriots got the ball back and kicked a field goal to tie, then kicked another to win in overtime.
New England went on to win the first of three Super Bowls in four years.
Ask any true Oakland Raiders fan, and you’ll hear hours of animosity toward the NFL, the Patriots and the officials who followed the letter of the law in Foxborough in 2002 but upheld an infinitely silly rule. Raider Nation feels—and who could blame them—that the New England dynasty was built on the “Tuck Rule” to Oakland’s detriment.
It’s an understandable sentiment, yet just about as asinine as the “Tuck Rule” itself. New England was chock-full of talent; one play was not the moment of ascension for one team and the downfall for another. But try saying that on a bar stool in the East Bay.
The new rule states that if a player has started a throwing motion and loses possession, it’s an incomplete pass. But as soon as that player begins to tuck the ball back into his body, if he loses possession, it’s a fumble.
The rule change passed easily, with the Patriots as one of two teams that abstained from voting. The Washington Redskins, with former Raiders senior executive Bruce Allen as general manager, was the other. The Pittsburgh Steelers voted against the change.
Rule Change No. 4: Jersey Cleanup
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The fourth rule change is simple, straightforward and clearly just a housekeeping item.
The NFL is very strict about what jersey numbers can be worn, and it’s all done by what position the player plays.
By the old rule, tight ends can wear the same jersey number as wide receivers (80-89 and 10-19), and can only dip into the 40-49 range of jersey numbers in certain situations (like, if all the other numbers are taken).
Moving forward, in addition to numbers 80-89, tight ends and H-backs will join fullbacks in wearing jersey numbers 40-49.
Rule Change No. 5: Elimination of the Low or 'Peel-Back' Block
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Rule change No. 5 is another player-safety change and a direct response to an injury Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing sustained after a block by New York Jets offensive guard Matt Slauson.
During a Week 5 Monday Night Football game, Cushing was hit low by Slauson, and Slauson rolled under Cushing. The blow forced Cushing from the game and later onto the injured reserve list with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
The play was the cause of much controversy directly after. Slauson didn't receive a penalty, as the rules allowed him to cut back on the back side of the play and block a player—in this case, Cushing.
The NFL later fined Slauson $10,000, according to the New York Daily News, but the media debated the block for a long time. Officials had typically allowed offensive players to block back toward the end of their own line in the tackle box and to block low. But the player wasn’t allowed to roll and drop his head below the player's knee (one of the reasons, in my opinion, this fine was handed out—because Slauson was guilty of both).
With the new rule change, players are no longer allowed to use a “peel-back” block anywhere on the field. The tackle box is no longer free base for offensive linemen trying desperately to cut back and slow down defensive pursuit of a ball-carrier.
Cushing told USA Today that when you have big athletes going full speed and making blocks that defenders sometimes can’t see coming, injuries should be expected.
"If my injury further prevents other injuries, then that's success, and there can be some good to come out of my injury,” Cushing said. “Hopefully, my injury does change the rule and in the future will prevent tons and tons of knee injuries."
The flag that comes from any “peel-back” block by an offensive lineman will be a 15-yard penalty. The likelihood of numerous knee injuries has been greatly reduced with this rule change.
Rule Change No. 6: New 'Crown of the Helmet' Rule
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Most NFL analysts and every defensive football player on the planet will tell you that rule changes of late typically benefit the offense. Defensive backs can’t be as physical with wide receivers as in years past, and referees protect quarterbacks with Secret Service diligence.
But the NFL tossed a monkey wrench into the system by placing restrictions on ball-carriers who initiate forcible contact with the crown of their helmet on defensive players.
Inside the tackle box, everything remains the same. A player running with the football can lower his head like a battering ram and plow forward with reckless abandon. But once that ball-carrier gets outside the tackle box, he can no longer lower his head and hit a defensive player with the crown of his helmet.
Running backs across the league were instantly outraged.
Wow so they really passed that rule...last time I checked football was a contact sport. Calling bank now to set up my lowering the boom fund— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) March 20, 2013
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Justin Forsett chose a tongue-in-cheek statement on Twitter to show his displeasure:
So I'm guessing I'm going to have to find ways to strengthen my chin now lol— Justin Forsett (@JForsett) March 20, 2013
Competition committee chairman Rich McKay explained the new rule at the 2013 Annual League Meeting press conference:
There are two elements to it. Both players have to clearly be out of the tackle box. It applies to a runner or a tackler. It applies when that runner or tackler ducks his head and delivers a forcible blow with the top or crown of his helmet.
Even though the new rule seems straightforward, there are some gray-area matters that will need to be cleaned up.
St. Louis Rams head coach and competition committee member Jeff Fisher did a good job of explaining that the crown of the helmet was just the top and did not include the facemask, the side or the hairline. But the league left too much wiggle room in the determination of a penalty by officials under the new rule.
Incidental contact will not be flagged on usage of the crown of the helmet, but what’s incidental? Many players voiced negative opinions about this confusion. Will officials stick to only calling serious offenses of the new crown-of-the-helmet rule, or will they start to err on the side of caution and toss flags frequently?
The NFL office and its officiating department looked at every play from Week 10 and Week 16 and found 11 infractions—an almost equal number from offensive players and defensive players—that would have been called by the new rule. By law of averages, that’s 88 penalties that would be called each year for breaking the crown-of-the-helmet rule.
In addition to reducing the chance of injury and lowering the chances of legal liability to the league, installing the crown-of-the-helmet rule will bring about more penalties. Maybe there will be 88 new penalty flags in 2013, maybe fewer with the way coaching staffs will have to train players to run and tackle. But there will definitely be more officiating moments in games for the near future.
All the side effects of the new crown-of-the-helmet rule might not be solely officiating-related. Scoring might be affected too.
The first impression is to say scoring will drop a bit because ball-carriers will be timid in trying to gain those few extra yards at the end of the play. While that’s not an inaccurate statement, I believe scoring might actually be enhanced in the long run once everyone gets comfortable with the new rule.
While players around the league scoff at the new rule as stealing the running backs’ mojo, has anyone thought about what happens when a running back keeps his head up and his eyes scanning the field? Yes, there may be times when the running back pays the price. But there will eventually be more explosive plays.
A side effect of a running back keeping his head up is the ability to see oncoming defenders and the lanes of escape to all sides. What if instead of the running back lowering his head and eyes to absorb a crushing hit, he keeps his head up and evades the would-be tackler?
Could this be a situation where running backs see the field better and actually benefit from proper form?
Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith would definitely disagree with my assessment, as he told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas that it was close to impossible for a running back to avoid lowering his head.
"If I’m a running back and I’m running into a linebacker, you’re telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off?" Smith said. "You’ve absolutely lost your mind."
"As a running back, it’s almost impossible (to not lower your head)," said the former running back. "The first thing you do is get behind your shoulder pads. That means you’re leaning forward and the first part of contact that’s going to take place is your head, regardless."
A good portion of those bruising impacts with linebackers will be inside the tackle box, where it’s still legal to lower your head and use the crown of your helmet. I’m still convinced that once proper training is instilled and runners learn to run in the open field (read: outside the tackle box) and keep their head up, good things, offensively, might happen.
We know a running back won't slide; this isn’t a situation where they will turn into quarterbacks. We also know the speed of the game won't slow down one bit. So that leaves three choices.
Running backs can all start running out of bounds, which typically doesn’t endear ball-carriers to the coaching staff and fans. Or the ball-carrier can continue to lower his head and hit with the crown of his helmet, welcoming the 15-yard penalty and also not endearing himself to his coaching staff.
The final option is to adapt. When NFL coaches put their minds to overcoming an obstacle, it doesn’t take long to find an answer. How long will it take running backs to be coached up to overcome this crown-of-the-helmet rule?
For the better ball-carriers, it won’t take long at all.