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A brief history of the NFL testing out possible new rules in the Pro Bowl

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An alternative to the onside kick will get a trial run at the 2020 Pro Bowl. History says it’s 50/50 if it’ll become a full-time change.

Pro Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Pro Bowl is a meaningless exhibition that only somewhat resembles an actual football game. Effort is low, silliness is at an all-time high, and nobody really cares who wins.

There is one thing that’s somewhat important, though. The NFL has recently used its all-star game to test out the viability of possible new rules. Sometimes those experiments result in the NFL rulebook being rewritten. Other times, they get dismissed as failures.

It started in 2015, though so far, only one of the rule differences was later implemented by the NFL. The 2020 Pro Bowl will be another chance for the league to see a couple potential tweaks to the game.

The NFL will test two (one major and one minor) rule changes

The league’s officiating office announced earlier in January that the 2020 Pro Bowl will give two potential rule changes a try:

The first is an alteration of “The Schiano Rule

This would be a radical change that could eliminate kickoffs entirely. It’s based off an idea championed by former Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, who was at Rutgers when defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed during a kickoff in 2011.

Instead of kicking off, “The Schiano Rule” has scoring teams send their offense back on to the field for a fourth-and-15 on their own 30-yard line. A desperate team could attempt to convert the fourth down in lieu of an onside kick. But the safer approach would be a punt that avoids gifting favorable field position to the opponent.

Last year, the NFL Competition Committee endorsed a version of the rule with a 7-1 vote, but owners shot it down at their annual March meeting.

The 2020 Pro Bowl rule will allow teams to try to convert a fourth-and-15 from their own 25-yard line. The alternative won’t be a punt, however. Teams can just decide to give their opponent the ball on their own 25-yard line, as though a touchback happened. Kickoffs have been removed from the Pro Bowl for years, so that part is no different.

It’s essentially the same rule the defunct Alliance of American Football used, just without any limitations on when scoring teams can try the fourth-down conversion. The NFC gave it a shot late in the fourth quarter Sunday, though that play ended in a Kirk Cousins interception on a deep pass downfield.

The biggest positive for the NFL if it adopted such a change could be the elimination of the kickoff (assuming it goes with Schiano’s version of the proposal). It’s a dangerous play that isn’t as exciting as a punt, anyway.

An added bonus would be a replacement for the onside kick, which has evolved into an incredibly low-percentage play.

The other rule change is mostly inconsequential

In this year’s Pro Bowl, it won’t be considered a false start if a wide receiver flinches. It’s exactly as subtle and minor as it sounds. The NFL rulebook has become pretty complicated over the years, and it’s a good thing if the league can find ways to reduce the number of penalties. Just don’t expect to notice much of a difference when receivers are waiting for the snap in the Pro Bowl.

It’s a relatively insignificant rule tweak that should make life easier for officials. That means it’s a likely candidate to become a full-time change in the offseason.

The NFL’s history of Pro Bowl experiments has mixed results

Trying out rules in the Pro Bowl is a relatively new exploit for the NFL. Yes, there have long been weird rules that aim to make the Pro Bowl safe — such as no blitzing or kickoffs. However, it wasn’t until five years ago the NFL started using the game as an experimental ground.

Let’s look at back at the two other years it has done so.

2015

Extra points were so automatic that the NFL decided to try making them more difficult. In the 2015 Pro Bowl, point-after tries were moved back to the 18-yard line to become 35-yarders and the distance between goal posts was slimmed from 18 feet to 14 feet.

Adam Vinatieri missed two of his three attempts during the Pro Bowl and said after the game that “no kicker is going to be happy” if the NFL makes those changes. He only got half of what he wanted. The NFL kept the goal posts 18 feet apart, but moved extra points back to the 15-yard line a few months later.

2019

The NFL tested a few things last year, but they had less to do with rules and more to do with making the viewing experience better for fans at home. Innovations included a camera on the hat of officials, a 360-degree camera in the back of the end zone, and more players being mic’d up.

Most importantly, the NFL loosened its restrictions against the use of tinted visors attached to facemasks. It then tweaked those rules to allow more tinted shields to be worn during the 2019 season.

The NFL is likely giving serious consideration to both rules being tried out in 2020, too. But it’s no guarantee either rule will be adopted just because it was tested at the Pro Bowl.