Imagine the NFL if the rules never changed.
A quarterback can’t throw a pass unless he’s at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The offence begins some plays just a yard from the sideline and is penalised for throwing more than one pass during a series of downs. Player substitutions are prohibited. No communication from the sideline is allowed. Players from both teams grab their opponents’ facemasks at will.
Thankfully those are the ways it used to be and our beloved game has evolved to be as entertaining as we now know it.
But who decides on these changes? It’s not the refs, they are only there to enforce the rules, they don’t make them! That is down to the Competition Committee. This is a nine-man (yes still a closed world there) panel of the great and good of the NFL and is made up of owners/presidents, general managers and three coaches. This year Ron Rivera, new head coach of the Washington Redskins was added to the committee.
The Competition Committee’s actions are based, in part, on feedback from a variety of sources. At the end of each season, the 32 NFL clubs fill out a survey, answering questions about player protection, officiating, competitive balance and technology. Leading up to the National Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, NFL Football Operations meets with coaches, general managers, players and NCAA representatives to gather their input about potential changes to the rules. There is also a review of data on injuries, instant replay and technology.
Whilst it may have gone quiet on the football field in the past month it’s not quiet off it. As Saints coach Sean Payton is on the competition committee I expect some of the recent conversations may have been very loud as his team were once again removed from a potential Super Bowl slot by a ‘missed call’.
The Competition Committee will meet once more before the league’s annual meeting in late March. At that meeting, they vote on new rules.
At the league’s annual meeting they will vote on the following amendments proposed by teams as well as proposals by the NFL’s Competition Committee. It’s unusual for the league to release the team’s proposals separately but they did last year as well. Last year, none of the teams proposed changes were agreed by the owners.
Since the 2015 offseason, only 11% of rules change proposals by teams have been passed, while 97% proposed by the Competition Committee have been passed. Washington, who proposed two rule changes last season, has not had any of their nine changes since 2015 approved. Maybe that’s why they are not proposing any this year!
- By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7, to modify the blindside block rule to prevent unnecessary fouls.
- By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 15, Section 2, to make permanent the expansion of automatic replay reviews to include scoring plays and turnovers negated by a foul, and any successful or unsuccessful Try attempt.
- By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 6, Section 1, Article 1, to provide an alternative to the onside kick that would allow a team who is trailing in the game an opportunity to maintain possession of the ball after scoring (4th and 15 from the kicking team’s 25-yard line).
- By Philadelphia; to amend Rule 16, Section 1, to restore preseason and regular-season overtime to 15 minutes and implement rules to minimize the impact of the overtime coin toss.
- By Miami; to amend Rule 4, Section 3, Article 2, to provide the option to the defence for the game clock to start on the referee’s signal if the defence declines an offensive penalty that occurs late in either half.
- By Baltimore and Los Angeles Chargers; to amend Rule 19, Section 2, to add a “booth umpire” as an eighth game official to the officiating crew.
- By Baltimore and Los Angeles Chargers; to amend Rule 19, Section 2, to add a Senior Technology Advisor to the Referee (STAR) to assist the officiating crew.
Last Season’s Changes
Blindside Blocks and Concussion
This safety foul was introduced last year and brought the NFL more or less in line with the NCAA and High School football in making dangerous blindside blocks illegal. Contact that is made with the shoulder, helmet or forearm wasn’t allowed when delivered from the blindside (A blindside block is one where a player doesn’t see the block coming, normally when play changes direction and he’s focusing on the runner). Blindside blocks that involve helmet contact against the defender were already illegal. It is still possible to ‘de-cleat’ a player, however, to make it legal you have to initiate contact with your hands first. Change 1 above is likely to address some of the wording in the rule to make clear the type of blocks outlawed and to reduce some flags where the teams feel aren’t needed to keep the safety element.
The major change to last year’s rules introduced the ability for Instant Replay to get involved in their first judgement call area and that was for obvious pass interference calls where they were missed on the field.
The implementation of this change was almost universally criticised by teams, fans and commentators alike.
League office, in the form of Senior VP of Officiating Al Riveron, set a bar for the calling or overturning of pass interference calls at a much higher level than exists by the officials on the field. This left many confused by what constituted pass interference and prevented many coaches even bothering to challenge calls they thought were wrong.
To put the importance of Pass Interference calls into perspective, over the three seasons leading up to the change, defensive pass interference has cost teams an average of 15.2 yards per call. Those fouls total 9 percent of all penalties. But because of the yardage involved, they represent 70 percent of penalties with the largest impact on the league’s internal version of a win probability statistic, according to documents distributed to committee members last winter. Of the 19 pass interference calls that most impacted win probability during that period, 13 occurred in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
The league’s internal analysis also examined the impact of pass interference fouls that were later graded to be incorrect by the league’s officiating department. Between 2016 and 2018, 10.5 percent of incorrect calls were for defensive pass interference. But 24 of those plays ranked among the top 50 in impact on win probability. In other words, 10.5 percent of all incorrect calls represented nearly 50 percent of the incorrect calls that most hindered (or helped) a team’s chances to win.
At last years’ vote, there was somewhat of a coup according to Albert Breer, “The 32 head coaches crafted a proposal to add an official in the booth to oversee “clear and obvious” mistakes on DPI, OPI, roughing the passer, defenceless player rules. The HCs then voted 32-0 to present it. The owners decided not to vote on that proposal.
I didn’t expect that to be the last we heard about that and I’m not at all surprised that proposal 6 and 7 is for a “Booth Umpire” or STAR (same thing under different names). Former SNR VP of Officiating Dean Blandino introduced the concept of the Sky Judge at the AAF and it worked well in the short time that league was in operation. It will only be a success if introduced into the NFL if they are allowed to intervene and judge with the same rules and limitations as the current on-field officials.
In my opinion, proposals 2 and 5 are likely to succeed in some part.
Proposal 2 was a sensible change last year and I don’t hear any dissenting voices raised against this being permanent.
Proposal 5 corrects a loophole in the rules that allows a team to burn time off the clock. It was used successfully by New England’s Bill Belichick in a game against the Jets. It was also used against the Patriots by former Patriot Mike Vrabel, now Head Coach of the Titans.
I think eventually the NFL will move to have a Sky Judge/Booth Umpire/STAR, just not this year.
We now wait to hear what the competition committee’s proposals are, they are the ones that are usually better thought out and have general support from the owners’ votes as a result.