As many states have continued to reopen and relax restrictions the NFL is also moving forward with plans to open the 2020 season as planned.
For a game that is pretty simple, consisting of blocking and tackling and running, passing and kicking the NFL’s rules book is unusually thick. Late last month at a virtual NFL owners meeting the league considered several proposed rules changes for the 2020 season.
A rule effectively rescinded was one that resulted from the repeated inconsistency of certain plays that often had major impacts in games.
Instituted on a trial basis for the 2019 season coaches were allowed to challenge calls or non-calls of offensive or defensive pass interference. It was passed last spring following what was an obvious non-call in the 2018 NFC Championship game between the Rams and Saints that very likely cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl.
Of the 101 PI calls/non-calls reviewed by replay last season, only 24 were reversed and there was league-wide sentiment among owners to not renew the rule for this season. That’s still one and a half plays per week that “got it right” after being reviewed.
Once again, too much control over the outcome of games has been returned to the officials who must make split-second decisions, often from poor angles, with no recourse afforded the offended team.
There were, however, several rules changes that were adopted, including one instigated by a prominent NFL coach who benefitted from that rule early in the season only to see it used against him in the playoffs. More on this shortly. Several of the changes made sense and helped further league goals.
• The temporary rule that required mandatory review of scoring plays and turnovers that are negated by penalty has been made permanent.
• The defenseless player designation has been expanded to clarify that a kick or punt returner who has not had time to clearly become a runner will be deemed a defenseless player.
• The number of players who can return from IR has been increased from two to three and those players must have missed eight games rather than eight weeks, effectively ignoring Bye weeks as part of time missed. This was actually a bylaws change proposed by the league rather than by the competition committee or individual teams.
Those rules changes should have minimal if any impact on scoring or in the flow of games themselves. The defenseless player modification is another move towards player safety, which has been a stated goal of the NFL over the past several seasons.
But the most significant of the newly adopted rules was a change that was forecast during last season after New England coach Bill Belichick used the rule to expose a loophole.
Last season, in Week Eight’s Monday Night game, the Patriots led the Jets 33-0 early in the fourth quarter when the loophole was exposed. While on offense, by deliberately taking penalties, the Pats were able to run additional time off the clock without taking any snaps. The clock was running when on fourth-and-2 from the Jets’ 33-yard-line Belichick decided to punt. But before a snap the clock ran down to zero, creating a five-yard penalty that the Jets declined.
The key is that when the referee signaled the ball ready for play the game clock started as per the rules since more than five minutes remained in the fourth quarter. That allowed the Pats to take an intentional false start penalty as the 25-second play clock was about to expire. The Jets again declined. The clock was again started and New England allowed about 10 seconds to run off the restarted game clock before finally punting.
After the game Belichick admitted he used the unusual strategy to make a point about a bad rule that needed to be changed. As is usually the case, Belichick was right and that rule has now been amended. He made his point in a nationally televised game that was a blowout so the ‘integrity of the game’ was not impacted.
The new rule prevents teams from committing multiple dead ball fouls while the game clock is running. But Belichick might wish to have made his point after the season.
In New England’s 20-13 Wild Card loss to Tennessee, Titans’ coach Mike Vrabel, a former Patriots player under Belichick, used the same tactic which, combined with a New England defensive penalty, enabled the Titans to run 1:49 off the clock in the fourth quarter without running a single play.
Tennessee led 14-13 and decided to eschew a FG due to bad weather, ultimately punting the ball back to the Pats. After an exchange of punts, the Patriots took possession on their own 1-yard-line with just 15 seconds remaining. On the first snap, Tom Brady tossed a pick-six in what would be the final play of his career as a Patriot.
Think Belichick could have used that extra 1:49?
Had the rule not been changed, more coaches might have used the tactic this season. It effectively shortened games which could have resulted in likely one less possession per game which in turn might have lowered scoring.
Two of the proposals that were not adopted involved adding personnel to the replay review process. But there was one proposal that was seriously considered and thought by many to have a realistic shot at passing.
A 2018 rules change that limited the kicking team from certain techniques and formations reduced the success of onside kicks. From a 21.7 percent success rate in 2017 the rate dropped to 7.5 percent in 2018 before increasing to 12 percent last season.
Philadelphia proposed a change to the onside kick rules that would give the kicking team a fourth-and-15 from its own 25. If the play succeeds, the team keeps possession. If unsuccessful, the opponent (receiving team) takes over.
This was a tweak to a change proposed by Denver last season that was approved by the Competition Committee but failed in the vote by full ownership. The rule was in play for January’s Pro Bowl but used just once.
I initially liked the thought. But ‘upon further review’ I’m glad it did not pass. First, it’s a gimmick that takes away from what football has always been about. Second, it takes away the element of surprise. One of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history occurred when the Saints successfully executed an onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl 41 when they trailed the Colts 10-6.
Rather, let’s go back to the pre-2018 rules for onside kicks which historically resulted in a 15 to 20 percent success rate. And it would retain the very essence of the game of football.