September 1, 2011

Under Review: Notable NFL Rule Changes

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In an informational video recently released by the NFL to clarify the 2011 rule changes for players and fans, Jeff Fisher, former head coach of the Tennessee Titans and current NFL Officiating Advisor, assures spectators that football is at its best heading into the 2011 season.

“Though our sport has changed and evolved through the years, the game today is better than it’s ever been,” Fisher said. “The foundation for that greatness is our playing rules.”

The average worth of an NFL franchise currently stands at $1.02 billion, more than the value of the average NBA franchise ($369 million) and the average MLB franchise ($491 million) combined. Team-valuation statistics aside, it would be foolish to argue that the NFL is not in its prime today. To associate that success with recent rule tweaks, however, is something many fans would take issue with.


Take the new kickoff rules, for instance, which despite a 26-6 approval vote by teams, have fans, players and even some coaches bemoaning the changes that are sure to dull the most fundamentally exciting play in football. Given medical research and statistical data substantiating kickoffs as the most injury-laden plays in football, the NFL opted to move kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in hopes of decreasing the number of concussions suffered. With such a change, expect touchbacks — and plenty of them. Through three weeks of preseason play, 167 out of 412 total kickoffs (40.5 percent) have gone for touchbacks, a very steep rise from the 2010 regular season, in which only 16 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks.

While the NFL has tried to counterbalance the coverage team’s advantage by allowing only a five-yard running start — as opposed to the previous 10- or 15-yard running start — many are still in uproar throughout the league. Players whose success started a few yards behind their own goal line, such as return specialists Joshua Cribbs and Devin Hester, took to Twitter to voice their frustration, while Bears coach Lovie Smith took straight to the field in his protest by having his team kick from the 30-yard line in their preseason debut in order to “see what [the team] can do coverage-wise.” (NFL V.P. of Officiating Carl Johnson called Soldier Field mid-game to put an end to Lovie’s rule bending).

Player safety should always be the NFL’s top priority, but one has to wonder if the league could have exercised alternative means to not only reduce the number of concussions suffered on kickoffs, but to also preserve the number of exciting kickoff returns. Limiting the coverage team’s pre-kick running start to five yards offers some consolation for return teams, but could the NFL have gone a step further — specifically, five yards further — and eliminated this running start altogether?

Simple math says that removing the running start altogether while keeping kickoffs at the 30-yard line would result in the equivalent decrease in pre-impact momentum the NFL is looking for. Reducing the running start another five yards — instead of moving kickoffs back five yards — would not only translate to less momentum (read: less concussions), but would also sidestep the expected spike in touchbacks that has left many up in arms.

What does all this mean for return teams? Don’t expect coaches to shy away from greenlighting returners caught deep in their own end zone. Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff has his returners lining up seven yards deep in their own end zone and returning anything they can catch while moving forward. While this might undermine some traditional football philosophies and the NFL’s hopes of reducing momentum-spurred concussions, many coaches are sure to follow suit.


“The previous play is under review.” Expect to hear a lot more of what has become one of the most nerve-racking and patience-testing phrases in all of football. Starting in 2011, every scoring play is subject to booth review, as determined by a booth assistant that will electronically page the head official when he sees fit. While some see this as an advertising ploy — yet another set of commercials after a touchdown — this rule was made with what appears to be a genuine intent to “get the call correct.” The NFL should of course hold itself to the highest standard when it comes to on-field accuracy, but moving the power from coaches’ little red flag to a remote press box is a questionable move at best. Human error is a frustrating part of sports — just ask MLB fans — but tedious video reviews can often be just as frustrating, and the NFL seems to be trying to fix a system that isn’t broken.

Football pundits have been quick to point to the more obvious effects of this rule — longer games, more responsibility for on-field officials and more aggressive challenges from coaches that would otherwise save them for controversial scoring plays. However, these individuals are overlooking one of the more subtle results of such a rule change. Since only the “close calls” that are ruled touchdowns are subject to booth review, referees — whether they are conscious of it or not — are more likely to rule a touchdown on the field and fall back on the booth review for accuracy. It is human nature to make the call that can be automatically reviewed. Combine this with the not-so-inconclusive evidence that in 2010 only 25 percent of booth reviews resulted in overturned calls, and fans can expect to see an increase in close calls going for touchdowns.

Protecting the Quarterback

The proverbial skirt on the quarterback just became a “one-size fits all” thanks to another major rule change heading into 2011. New verbiage related to illegal hits has greatly expanded the list of actions that are prohibited. In an extensive list that ranges from receivers to returners to runners whose forward progress is stopped, practically all players at one point or another can now be considered defenseless, and hitting such players will result in a 15-yard penalty.

Though the NFL got it right with some other safety-spurred expansions of what will be strictly penalized — such as illegal launching and offensive facemasks — the expansion of the defenseless player rule is still suspect.

Again, safety should be the top priority, but the NFL is overstepping its bounds by creating a rule that is sure to penalize players for what any James Harrison apologist would define as finishing a football play. Just this Monday, defensive back Donald Strickland of the New York Jets was penalized 15 yards for crashing into New York Giants running back Andre Brown, only seconds after his knee hit the ground. Penalizing defenders who barge into a player a split second after he was ruled down or his forward motion was stopped in a lightning-fast game time environment is unreasonable and encourages not playing through the whistle — an age-old no-no in any sport.

The NFL has come forward with a bevy of rule changes for 2011, some more significant than others, but each stirring controversy in its own way. While many are challenging the NFL’s decisions, I encourage fants to keep the red flag tucked in their sock. Until the 2011 regular season is said and done, this one is better left as it currently stands, due to inconclusive evidence.

Original Author: Paul Picinich