NFL officiating hit an all-time low last season. Several games, including prime-time affairs, were decided by calls that were just plain out wrong. With the prevalence of instant replay, debating the rules is now a common occurrence across all sports. But that’s especially the case in the NFL, where referees are second-guessed on Monday mornings just as often as head coaches and quarterbacks.
Part of this is due to the suffocating popularity of professional football. Every facet of the league is under a microscope, including the referees. But the league’s increasingly complex rulebook is also to blame, with seemingly overmatched officials being left to interpret ambiguous rulebook language in real time.
The competition committee approved a number of rule changes this year, including two controversial edicts that will be on one-season trial runs. If recent history is any indication, these alterations will likely create more problems than they solve.
Bumping touchbacks to the 25-yard line
The NFL keeps trying to marginalize the kickoff, which is one of the most dangerous plays in football. And so far, their efforts have been successful. With kickoffs now being pushed up to the 35-yard line, touchbacks are now more commonplace than returns. A whopping 56 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks last season.
In March, the NFL decided to move touchbacks up to the 25-yard line for a one-year trial. Since only nine clubs averaged more than 25 yards per return in 2015, conventional wisdom says this measure will decrease the number of run backs. But that wasn’t the case during the preseason, where returns were up through the first two weeks of games.
Some coaches, such as Andy Reid, have said this new mandate will actually increase the number of kick returns in the regular season. Instead of booting the ball to the end zone, kickers may be strategic and look to pop the ball up. If that’s the case, it’s difficult to see this rule lasting more than a year.
Roger Goodell’s ‘two strikes and you’re out’ rule
Since referees did such an outstanding job last season, Goodell decided to advocate for more power to be put in their hands. At the Super Bowl this year, he personally made an appeal for players with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties to automatically be ejected from games. Unsurprisingly, the competition committee listened.
This season, players will be kicked out of games if they were flagged for two of the following penalties:
(a) Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made.
(b) Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League.
(c) Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.
This proposal, which is on a one-year trial run, puts more pressure than ever on officials who decide to penalize players for unsportsmanlike conduct. In the Super Bowl, for example, Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib racked up two violations in the first half. Under this rule, he would’ve been ejected from the contest.
Improving player safety
Banning all chop blocks: The league passed a rule this offseason that will make all blocks below the waist a 15-yard penalty if a player is already being hit high. Though most chop blocks were already illegal, there were loopholes depending on player alignment.
But predictably, there’s still a gray area. On many plays, offensive linemen knock defensive linemen low so they can avoid them and move down the field. If that’s deemed illegal, then offensive lines may have a lot of trouble creating space in the running game. This block by a Baltimore Ravens center shows where the gray area lies.
More than anything, this chop block rule shows how difficult it is to create a comprehensive and clear NFL rulebook.
Expanding the horse collar rule: It’s no longer OK for defenders to drag down runners by grabbing onto or above the nameplate on their jerseys. It’s still illegal to latch onto the inside collar of the back or the side of the shoulder pad and/or jersey.
This rule doesn’t apply to quarterbacks in the pocket or runners in the tackle box, which is the area of the field between the two offensive tackles.
Clamping down on coaching misconduct
Penalty for calling timeouts you don’t have: It will now be a delay of game when a team attempts to call a timeout when it doesn’t have any left. Previously, a penalty was only called when coaches did this tactic to freeze the opposing kicker.
The Detroit Lions are likely the party to thank for this rule change. During a Monday Night Football contest against the New Orleans Saints last season, they signaled for a timeout on a 4th-and-1 at the end of the first half when they had none remaining. The Saints scored three touchdowns during that drive, but all were called back due to penalties. Detroit went on to win the game, 35-37.
Though it’s unclear whether the Lions called a faux timeout to mess with the Saints’ momentum, a team could’ve used this loophole as a strategic advantage. But now it’ll cost clubs 15 yards.
The ‘Joey Porter Rule:’ Towards the end of the contentious Divisional Round matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers linebacker coach Joey Porter walked onto the field and provoked several Bengals players. Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones shoved him, and was subsequently flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, setting up a game-winning Steelers field goal.
A coin must flip in the coin toss
The coin didn’t flip at the start of overtime in the Divisional Round matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals, resulting in a redo (Arizona won both tosses). There was nothing in the rulebook that directly addressed this situation, so now there is. For those wondering, a coin must flip in order for it be considered a proper coin toss.
Hooray for technology
Improvements to sideline communication: There were several headset malfunctions in the NFL last season, including when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin infamously complained that the Patriots radio broadcast hijacking his headset during Week 1 last season.
The malfunction was due to NFL incompetence rather than Patriots subterfuge, as the league controls all communication systems during games. In order to avoid this issue in 2016, the NFL will install a new system this season that allows coaches to speak directly with players from the press box. It will be operated on an exclusive frequency that the NFL has obtained from the Federal Communications Commission.
If all goes according to plan, headset mishaps should be a thing of the past.
Expanded instant replay: Four aspects of game administration are now reviewable: Penalty enforcement, proper down, spot of a foul and the status of the game clock.
This may seem insignificant, but referees made a few mistakes in regards to clock management last season. Most notably, officials mistakenly ran the clock an extra 18 seconds during a Steelers-Chargers game in October when just over two minutes were remaining in regulation.
There will also be more mandated communication between in-game refs and the league’s officiating office. The NFL introduced this policy during the playoffs last season.
Have they explained what a catch is yet?
No. But clarifications have been added. In the previous rulebook, it said a player must possess control of the ball until he “clearly becomes a runner.” The problem was, of course, nobody knows what it looks like to “clearly become a runner.”
This year, that phrase has been expanded upon. The NFL explains a player is considered a runner when “after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps.”
The ruling is still ambiguous, but a little more specific. Referees will now have an actual guideline they can point to when determining what is and isn’t a catch, so at least they have reasoning to fall back on.