NFL Rankings: The 16 Best NFL Rule Changes in History

Robert HoffmanCorrespondent IJune 29, 2011

NFL Rankings: The 16 Best NFL Rule Changes in History

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    OK, maybe it's scraping the bottom of the barrel, but at a time where we're desperately trying to look ahead to a collective bargaining agreement, its much easier to look back at the NFL and determine what has went right and what has went wrong.

    In my last column, I reminisced about the negative, the 32 most embarrassing moments in NFL history. Click NFL's Most Embarrassing Moments.

    In this column, let's look at the positive, specifically 16 of the best rule changes the NFL has implemented in the last 30 years.

    We all know that the "zebras" need all the help they can get and we often focus on what they do wrong, myself certainly included in cursing at these previously nameless individuals who change the outcome of a football game.

    Gene Steratore, (the ref who denied the Lions a win over the Chicago Bears and awarded the Pittsburgh Steelers a win over the Miami Dolphins in 2010 with questionable play calls), I'm referring to you.

    I digress. Let's look at the rule changes that have made the lives of referees easier and more importantly actually helped the game of football.

    Special thanks to for its history of NFL rules and for their historical account.

16. Deferring the Coin Toss

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    In 2008, the NFL made a couple of outstanding rule changes.

    One, that we'll discuss here is the decision to defer after winning the coin toss. This was a decision that could be made in lower levels of football for years. Why an NFL team couldn't defer possession of the ball until the second half is beyond me. As of three years ago, they now can and its added an extra element of strategy to the game, especially for coaches that would prefer to open the game with their extremely strong defense or suspect offense.

15. The End of the Incidental Facemask

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    Asking referees to distinguish between shades of gray is always problematic. After all, consider that their uniforms are black and white.

    Unless a defender would use the facemask to try and rip a defender's head off, distinguishing between incidental (five-yard penalty) and the intentional grabbing of the facemask (15-yard penalty) was arbitrary at best and irresponsible at worst.

    Starting in 2008, every facemask infraction now cost the offending team 15 yards.

14. Move Them Goal Posts

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    In 1974, the goal posts were moved to end line instead of the goal line.

    The only surprise is why someone didn't think about this ahead of time.

    Seriously, didn't it occur to someone that running a slant pattern over the middle into a "brick wall" wasn't all that of a good idea?

13. Second Wild-Card Team

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    In 1978, the NFL added a second Wild Card team, which brought the league to the ideal format of two wild-card teams playing each other with the winner advancing to the round of eight.

    Having five teams advance to the playoff in each conference was more than enough. Subsequently, adding a third Wild Card in 1990 and then expansion "requiring" four divisions in each conference in 2002 has made the playoffs a free-for-all.

    The current format of forcing the two division winners with the worst records (among the four) to play on Wild Card weekend and not receiving a bye really, really dilutes the honor of a team winning its division if it doesn't go 12-4 or better.

    Certainly, you can have division winners with really poor records, such as 7-9 Seattle in 2010, but these problems are due to having too many teams and too many divisions.

12. Putting Names on the Backs of Jerseys

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    This might appear to be trivial at first glance, but in 1970 the NFL decided to put names on the backs of players' jerseys.

    While, I consider myself to be "old school" in some respects, and I kind of like a college that leaves names off of a jersey, the player turnover in the NFL is such that you really need those names for identification purposes.

    Try scouting an NFL team without the names on the back of the jersey. In addition, some of the new style jerseys make the numbers extremely hard to make out with the different scripts used today.

    For example, good luck distinguishing a player No. 86 from a player No. 88 at times.

11. Sudden Death Overtime

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    It's not that I like the concept of sudden death overtime. Although truth be told, I don't mind having whatever team scores first being declared the winner starting in an extra period. In fact, I find it much more appealing that giving each team the ball at the 25-yard line in a glorified contest of red-zone offenses.

    But, what sudden death overtime did when implemented in 1941 for the NFL playoffs was begin to put the concept of ties to rest. In 1974, the NFL added a single-period sudden death overtime for all preseason and regular season games. While its possible to still end a regular season game in a tie, according to, there have been 17 ties since 1974, and just four since 1989

    Professional football games should not end in ties for the simple reason that there needs to be a clear cut winner, obviously for the playoffs to continue, but also because playing for a tie should never become a factor in how an NFL team tries to make the playoffs

10. The Two-Point Conversion

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    As much maligned as the USFL was, the league made several contributions to the NFL.

    Not only did it develop stars such as Reggie White, Steve Young and Jim Kelly for the "big leagues", discover additional markets for the NFL including Jacksonville and Arizona, but several "innovations" of the new league such as instant replay and the two-point conversion would later be adopted by the NFL.

    I go back and forth on the two-point play, but there are at least two reasons why it became a great addition to the NFL in 1994.

    First, all of sudden teams that were down by eight points very late in a game (and you would be surprised how often that seems to occur) would still have hope of tying a game and winning it in overtime. If a team was down by seven points, there was at least the threat that it could win the game on a last drive and avoid overtime.

    Second, and I really have nothing against kickers, but the two-point conversion has at least just a little bit reduced the importance of the position. I have no problem with a game being occasionally decided by a 40-plus-yard field goal. But, winning or tying a game with an extra point is pretty anti-climatic.

    Bottom line: The two-point conversion adds drama to the game.

    Now, you can see that I came up with 16 rule changes that I think have bettered the game of the football, but you don't want me to tell you which rule changes I think have worsened the game.

    Here's a hint if you must know. It would start with the "tuck rule" and there would be a lot more than 16.

    That's another article.

    Hope you enjoyed.

9. Personal Foul

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    Even though it seems as though the rule has gone too far today, when any movement towards the head sends a yellow hankie flying, starting in 1980, players were not longer allowed to strike, swing, or club the head, neck of face.

    The intent of the personal foul is appropriate and prior to the rule, defenders were taking liberties with how any human being should be treated.

    Under the heading of "personal foul," players were prohibited from directly striking, swinging, or clubbing on the head, neck, or face.

8. No More Horsing-Around with That Collar

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    As a former high school coach, player safety is a big issue for me. While, I think the NFL has gone too far especially with the concept of a defenseless receiver, the league clearly made the right decision in 2005 by outlawing the horse collar tackle and by clarifying the rules even further the following year. 

    Often called the Roy Williams rule because of the Dallas' safety habit of pulling down players that way, including an instance where Terrell Owens broke his leg and tore ligaments in his ankle.

    Taking a player down by their collar often causes such injuries because a player's legs are often trapped underneath him at an unnatural angle when he is pulled back and down. With as strong as today's players are there would also seem to be potential for a serious neck, spine or back injury.

7. Un-Holy Roller

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    I can't imagine being in attendance at Jack Murphy now Qualcomm Stadium on September 10th 1978. First of all, I was too young.  Second, if I was a San Diego Chargers fan I might not have made it out alive.

    With 10 seconds left, and the Oakland Raiders trailing 20-14, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler was about to be sacked to end the game. He purposely fumbled the ball forward on the Chargers' 24-yard line. Running back Pete Banaszak tried to recover the ball, but as he was falling, he desperately sent the ball forward.  Finally, tight end, Dave Casper played with the football until he fell fell on it in the end zone for the tying touchdown. The extra-point gave Oakland the win and America indigestion.

    Thankfully, this play can't happen again because in 1979, the league ruled that if a player fumbles forward during the last two minutes of a half or on fourth down, only the fumbling player can recover and advance the ball. If a teammate recovers the ball, it is placed at the spot of the fumble.

6. Down Means the Ball Is Dead.

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    In 1955, the NFL did the game a huge favor by declaring that the ball was dead immediately if he touched the ground with any part of his body except his hands or feet while in the grasp of an opponent.

    Imagine if a knee or posterior could touch the ground and then a player could get up and run again or for that matter just keep surging forward. Tacklers would be blasting ball-carriers until they were embedded into the turf.

    Also, think about many more fumbles there would be in the game if a defender could just keep popping a ball-carrier until they were laid out.

5. Unlimited Substitution

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    Even though one has to admire the tough guys who played multiple positions and both ways like the Philadelphia Eagles Chuck Bednarik, the reality is that when unlimited free substitution was restored in 1950, more opportunities opened for more players and the quality of the game improved.

    It makes too much sense that you will find more players that are good at doing one or two things than many different things.

    Occasionally, NFL teams can get too caught up their unique substitution packages and players, but also given the physical nature of the game and the amount of serious injuries suffered today, the bigger rosters are needed.

    Simply put, how many games would DeSean Jackson last if he had to play cornerback and punt, as well as play receiver and return kicks?

4. Instant Replay

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    For the record, I am in favor of almost any idea that is intended to take the game out of the referees' hands.

    Unfortunately, the current system is far from perfect, but the intent is right, which is to get the call on the field right no matter what.

    One problem with the current system is the concept of "having incontrovertible video evidence" in order to overturn a call on the field. Hopefully, with increased technological advances in the future, the camera will return this incontrovertible video evidence more often.

    The current replay system, which was introduced in 1999, is successful if you view it as a beginning step in a longer process.

3. The 5-Yard Contact Rule for Defenders

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    In 1978, a rule change altered the game of football forever.

    A defender was only allowed to maintain contact with a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

    Any contact beyond that and a flag would be thrown.

    While, I don't particularly care for how restrictive this rule has become (I see way too many flags thrown for purely incidental contact and again I don't trust referees to know the difference between incidental and intentional), this rule made the famous passing games of the last thirty years possible.

    It's unfortunate, that subsequent rule changes, such as "not hitting a defenseless player" have taken away so much of the game from the defense.

2. Point Increase for a Touchdown; Point Decrease for a Field Goal

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    During rule changes from 1898 to 1912, the touchdown went from being worth four points to worth six.

    From 1904 to 1909, the field goal went from being worth five points to three.

    Yes, there was a point when the field goal was worth more than a touchdown in "professional football.

    While, this is technically before the birth of the NFL in 1920, these changes are a good part of what makes American football the sport it is instead of just a variation of soccer (no offense intended).

1. The Forward Pass Is Legalized

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    Imagine for a moment. No Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Brett Favre (OK, maybe not the best example), Joe Montana, Sammy Baugh, or Johnny Unitas.

    In 1906, the forward pass was legalized and then in 1933, a passer could throw the ball from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

    The quarterback would eventually become the most important position on the football field. 

    The first authenticated pass completion in a pro game came on October 27, 1906, when George (Peggy) Parratt of Massillon threw a completion to Dan (Bullet) Riley in a victory over a combined Benwood-Moundsville team.