It’s been more than three years since the NFL decided Dez Bryant’s sprawling, fourth-and-2, Cowboys-saving playoff grab was, in fact, an incompletion. It’s been nearly eight since Calvin Johnson had a touchdown taken off the board for failing to survive the ground in the Bears’ end zone. And now, in 2018, we may finally figure out just what a catch is in the NFL.
The league’s confusing language regarding just how long a receiver has to control the ball to complete a catch will be one of several rule changes addressed at the NFL’s Annual League Meeting. From March 25-28, owners from all 32 teams will meet to discuss the upcoming season, and that will include recommendations from the NFL’s competition committee.
A 75 percent majority — 24 out of 32 votes — is needed to approve any revisions for the 2018 season. Here’s what else you need to know.
There are 10 potential playing rule changes for 2018
The NFL announced 10 playing rule proposals will be up for discussion — including the big one, a proposal that “changes [the] standard for a catch.”
Those aren’t the only topics that will be reviewed, though. There are also 12 bylaws and four resolutions up for vote, ranging from policies like teams being able to trade players who are on injured reserve to stadiums being required to have three separate locker rooms for female staff.
Which proposed rules matter most?
Of those possible changes, not all of them will have major implications. These are ones that could be the most important for 2018 — and the 2017 plays that pushed them in front of the committee.
Clarifying the catch rule
The headliner from the annual meeting will likely be a change to what the NFL considers a catch. Receivers have famously had to “survive the ground” after securing the ball, a rule with room for interpretation that has sparked debate for several seasons — most recently when the Steelers had a go-ahead touchdown late in their game against the Patriots overturned because the ball shifted in Jesse James’ hands after he’d already crossed the goal line.
The catch rule became so complex even veteran officials-turned-correspondents like Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira struggled to understand the calls made on the field. The committee wants to simplify that language and give officials the power to rule plays that look like a catch a catch. Here’s what they’re proposing:
After much deliberation & input from coaches, players, @NFLLegends, & club executives, the @NFL Competition Committee will recommend the following language simplifying the catch rule at the Annual Meeting next week. pic.twitter.com/hJwH5YYBRK— Al Riveron (@alriveron) March 21, 2018
A slight movement after hitting the ground would no longer invalidate a catch. That would also limit the amount of replay time needed in situations like these.
Speaking of replays ...
Giving referees the opportunity to eject a player after viewing a replay
The NFL isn’t going to take on the NCAA’s targeting rule to eject players for helmet-to-helmet hits, but it may step up its discipline in order to dish out ejections for unsportsmanlike conduct after a play has concluded. This is something that came up in 2017 when Rob Gronkowski unleashed the dirtiest play of his career to concuss Tre’Davious White at the end of the Patriots’ Week 13 win over the Bills.
While he was suspended from the following week’s loss to the Dolphins, the All-Pro tight end was allowed to finish his game against Buffalo — something that wouldn’t have happened if this proposed rule were in place.
Allowing franchises to hire assistant coaches from playoff teams while they’re coaching in the postseason
NFL teams typically raid the coaching trees of successful franchises after firing a head coach, and often that means having to wait until their target has either dropped out of the playoffs or won a Super Bowl before making an official hire. That’s usually just a mild inconvenience, unless you’re the Colts. Then it’s a catastrophe.
McDaniels spent the latter half of the playoffs as Indianapolis’ uncrowned head coach, then doubled back at the last second to remain in New England. Speeding up the timeline and allowing the Colts to hire him before the Patriots even played in the AFC title game may not have changed things in the long run, but it would have given Indy more lead time as it scrambled for a replacement.
At the league meeting, the NFL is set to discuss a proposal that would allow teams to hire a coach during the postseason, even if that coach is employed by a team still alive in the playoffs.
Waiting for coaches to become available forces some teams to wait while the pool of available top-tier talent dries up. Changing the rules around hiring timelines is aimed at making the process more fair for everyone.
What about defensive pass interference?
The league’s pass interference rule is unlikely to change, despite the Jets asking the league to redefine it. The NFL sees pass interference as a spot foul — the ball is placed where the foul occurred, with an automatic first down awarded — making an official’s judgment call worth up to 60 yards of field position on big plays. The NCAA caps that limit at 15 yards, a rule the Jets would like the NFL to adopt as long as the foul isn’t egregious.
There are pros and cons to each argument. Making the penalty a spot call gives an accurate reflection of what a play could have been before rules were broken when it’s called correctly. However, the recent proliferation of PI calls — there were 5.94 interference penalties per NFL team in 2009 but 8.66 in 2017 — suggests these calls may be swinging the competitive balance strongly in favor of the league’s wideouts.
Bad judgment can been a boon for stagnant offenses, like when the Patriots picked up a 32-yard gift in the AFC Championship Game on a play where A.J. Bouye did nothing but eat Brandin Cooks’ lunch on a deep route.
Making the penalty a 15-yarder would lessen the impact of an interference call, but it would also give burned defensive backs an incentive to bail out and commit intentional interference to spoil big plays. That’s a double-edged sword — but while it’s worked out so far for college football, the NFL wants no part of it. According to NFL.com’s Judy Battista, the competition committee is “lopsidedly against” a plan to cap interference penalties.
What else is in store for the annual meeting?
There will be reforms brought up for discussion that don’t come from the rules committee:
- The Chargers have proposed making roughing the passer and defenseless receiver penalties reviewable by instant replay; they currently have to be called at the time of the foul.
- Washington is taking that a step further with by proposing all personal fouls be enforceable after review.
- A triumvirate of western teams — the Cardinals, 49ers, and Chargers — have also teamed up with a proposal that would limit the amount of early East Coast kickoffs each team would be forced to deal with each season.
- Touchbacks after kickoffs were moved to the 25-yard line on a year-by-year basis in 2016. The NFL will vote on making it a permanent rule.
Protecting sliding quarterbacks isn’t a proposal but could still be discussed
The “defenseless player” rule protects quarterbacks after they’ve thrown a pass but not after they’ve given themselves up by sliding after a scramble. Adjusting this definition would give officials more recourse to penalize players who take a crack at a passer who is abandoning the play after clearing the line of scrimmage. This need popped up last year after Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso crushed Joe Flacco after the Ravens QB took a late slide.
It isn’t explicitly on the league’s agenda for discussion, but NFL vice president Troy Vincent told the Washington Post earlier in the week that the definition will be expanded.
The defenseless-player rules will be expanded, Vincent said, to give more protection to a runner — particularly a quarterback who’s running — who gives himself up at the end of a run, either by sliding or diving, as with a notable hit on the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco last season.
While Alonso was flagged for hitting the quarterback above the shoulder pads, the play would have been legal if it were a brutal shoulder-to-chest hit. An expanded definition of defenseless player would change that, although it may be a proposal that doesn’t get votes until later in the offseason.
So what won’t be on the agenda?
As mentioned above, there won’t be a targeting rule that would lead to mandatory ejections for dangerous helmet-to-helmet or “launching” hits. The league is also unlikely to take on the hornets’ nest of protests during the nation anthem. While the owners will likely discuss the issue, they aren’t expected to take any official action on it until May, if at all.
Who makes these decisions?
The 32 league owners all have the ultimate say, but the competition committee is the one pushing the majority of the big-ticket reforms at the league meeting. The panel is made up of eight men, ranging from owners to executives to head coaches:
- Rich McKay (chairman) – Atlanta Falcons president
- Mark Murphy – Green Bay Packers president
- Stephen Jones – Dallas Cowboys owner
- John Mara – New York Giants owner
- John Elway – Denver Broncos general manager
- Ozzie Newsome – Baltimore Ravens general manager
- Sean Payton – New Orleans Saints head coach
- Mike Tomlin – Pittsburgh Steelers head coach
The competition committee has made some major reforms in the past. Last year, they shortened overtime from 15 minutes to 10. In 2015, they pushed the extra point back from the 2-yard line to the 15. This spring, they could help simplify the game and finally define just what exactly a catch is.