NFL Rule News Update

Imagine the NFL if the rules of play had 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 ten man (yes still a closed world there) panel of the great and good of the NFL and is made up of four owners/presidents, three general managers and three coaches.

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. (1)

Whilst it may have gone quiet on the football field in the past month it’s certainly heating up off the field.

The NFL’s Competition Committee is discussing two proposals that would significantly alter officiating

  • Make referees full-time employees
  • Centralise the replay review system.

According to sources familiar with the committee’s discussions during its meetings at the NFL Scouting Combine, there is continuing support for both ideas.  Full-time referees would be gradually phased in, to give current occupants the opportunity to either exit their existing careers or to leave the officiating ranks. If the idea is approved, the phase in could start as soon as this coming season.  There seems to be greater interest in full-time referees than there is in adding an eighth member to the officiating crews.  Many of the existing officials have sometimes lucrative positions outside of football including lawyers and insurance underwriters.

This leaves a big question about how many referees would choose to leave officiating and need to be replaced.

There is also increasing support for centralised review, which is likely to be managed from the league’s officiating headquarters in New York. The intent is that centralised review would improve two areas: consistency and the time it takes to review calls. League officials have become concerned with referees going under a hood on the sideline to review replays and the league wants to reduce the length of game interruptions. The referee on the field would still be involved in the review process but this would be a significant step to take review off the field.

The Competition Committee will continue to meet this week, then once more before the league’s annual meeting in late March. At that meeting, they vote on new rules. The committee will also discuss extending the experiment that put touchbacks at the 25-yard line. The rule, which was used last year, decreased the number of returns which is what was desired as they are considered one of the most dangerous plays in the game. The committee is expected to extend the experiment by another year.

The NFL’s dance with touchdown celebrations

Getting back to the people who have to enforce the rules, one of the criticisms they face relates to flags on celebrations after touchdowns. The NFL is looking to relax those rules following criticism about punishments handed down for things like basketball jump shots and Snow Angels.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said at Super Bowl LI; “It’s also something that we’ve been dealing with for well over 35 years”. He went on to say, “balancing sportsmanship, avoiding taunting and trying to allow players the ability to express themselves in an exuberant way to celebrate. We think that’s great. We want to see more of that. ”

“We want to see the players do that. But we want to see them do it respectfully to their teammates and their opponents.”

Decisions weren’t made this week but momentum is growing toward guidelines that would allow some spontaneous celebrations.

Speaking to the NFL’s Senior Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino, he told me….

“We are in the process of looking at different celebrations with the goal of providing more clarity to the players and game officials as to what is and isn’t legal. Nothing has been decided as of yet.”

The league will continue to outlaw what it thinks of as excessive, prolonged or vulgar demonstrations. But there is now an expectation that lighter guidelines will be adopted at some point this offseason, most likely during the annual owners’ meetings in Phoenix later this month.

UPDATE – 23 March 2017

Here are the final changes proposed for the meeting this week.