2021 NFL rule changes guide

NFL rule changes for the 2021 season followed a familiar pattern: Big ideas ultimately led to a handful of modest adjustments.

Instead of creating a full-time sky judge or a booth umpire, owners decided to formalize communication on a limited menu of calls from the replay official to referees. Rather than adopt a more radical solution to the decline in onside kick recoveries, they decided to tweak formation requirements. And for the most part, they stared blankly at an esoteric proposal to revamp overtime and simply moved on.

It’s possible that an additional rule or two will be approved at an owners meeting later this spring. But after meeting twice this week, NFL owners signaled their belief that their on-field product remained remarkably intact after the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. Five key factors tracked annually by the NFL competition committee all moved “in the direction fans would want them to go,” committee chairman Rich McKay said. Average time of game, margin of victory and total penalties all fell. Points per game and plays per game both rose.

Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at how the game will — and won’t — be changed by decisions the NFL made this week.

More help from replay official

The NFL has been wrestling for years with the reality that television viewers sometimes have a better view of plays than any of the seven officials on the field. The advance of technology and broadcast quality have laid bare the mistakes and missed calls that historically went unseen, a threat to competitive integrity that will only shine brighter as the league begins to embrace gambling.

Coaches have pushed for adding an eighth official to each crew and assigning them to a stadium suite with access to broadcast feeds and toggle technology. For now, however, owners and competition committee members consider the idea to be both fantasy — they don’t think there are enough qualified candidates — and an intrusion on the basic tenet that games should be officiated on the field.

The furthest they are willing to go is allowing the existing replay official, who already sits in a stadium suite but is limited to assistance on plays that are reviewed, to advise referees in a handful of other “specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present,” according to the rule.

Replay officials, for example, can now advise referees if they see the ball bounce off the ground on what was ruled a completed catch. If the affected coach does not challenge the call, the referee can listen to the replay official’s information and decide to change the ruling. They will not, for example, be able to point out mitigating factors on subjective calls such as pass interference.

“This is where officials, the referees are all involved, felt like they wanted to maintain control of the game,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “The game should be called on the field with the support of the replay official in the stadium as well as New York when appropriate.”

Will it work? It won’t hurt. In truth, some referees already ask their replay officials for “off-the-books” help during games, via their wireless microphone connection. But most replay officials have not worked as conventional on-field officials, and their advice will not be binding. Referees can ignore it altogether. Other referees will be highly motivated to avoid mistakes that could impact their crew’s evaluation. Ultimately, there will still be a high volume of questionable calls that are clearly visible on the broadcast but ineligible to be discussed with the replay official.


Onside kick adjustment

Rule changes in 2018 to make kickoffs safer had a clear side effect. Onside kicks became significantly more difficult to recover, partly because the kickoff team was no longer allowed a running start. Another factor was the creation of a “setup” zone for the receiving team, designed to minimize players making first contact after running a long distance. In effect, the arrangement allowed receiving teams to put all 11 players within 25 yards of the ball for onside kicks.

In 2020, only three onside kicks were recovered on 67 attempts, the NFL’s lowest total and recovery rate since at least 2001. The total recovery rate since the 2018 rule change has been 8.3%, much lower than its average during the previous two decades (19.7%).

Several teams have proposed an alternative that would give a scoring team the option to replace the kickoff with a single offensive play at its 25-yard line. If they gain 15 yards or more, they could maintain possession. But owners have rejected that proposal multiple times, including one this spring by the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, they adopted a suggestion from special teams coaches to limit the number of players in the setup zone to nine.

“It’s not like we’re trying to give the onside kick team an advantage,” McKay said. “Nobody wants them to have an advantage. The other team has earned the right to be ahead, but we are trying to go back to the historical numbers of onside kick recoveries, and that’s the heart of this proposal.”

Will it work? The needle could move a bit back toward the kicking team, but again, it’s a modest attempt to avoid what owners consider a gimmicky solution. And it’s a true experiment: Owners approved it for only one year. But the goal is an important one. In terms of fan engagement, onside kicks need to be possible enough to maintain interest late in games with a two-score (or more) differential.


More flexibility with jersey numbers

A series of pandemic-related rule changes last season, including an increase to 16 practice squad members and the ability to activate some of them for games, led several teams to run out of jersey numbers. The shortage prompted the Kansas City Chiefs to propose that single digits be allowed for running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers. Owners approved the change for the 2021 season, and now it’s time to get funky.

Veteran players might not stampede toward a new number, however. Existing NFL rules require a player to buy out inventory of his existing jersey in order to make an immediate change. If he signals a change now for the 2022 season, it would cost him nothing.

Will it work? Yes. There shouldn’t be a shortage moving forward. More importantly, we’ll get a genuinely fun twist that better reflects all other levels of the game and allows the NFL to shed one of its stodgiest rules.


Blocking below the waist

A proposal to expand the prohibition of blocking below the waist was tabled to address lingering questions. But McKay said it probably could have passed this week, despite the questions, and that it is likely to be taken back up next month.

The rule in essence would expand the area where offensive players can’t block below the waist and defensive players can’t upend offensive players who are moving toward a block in the area. For those technically inclined, the proposal creates a “tight end box” outside of the tackle box where the block is allowed, defined as two yards outside the tackle and five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage. Beyond that area, blocks below the waist would be a 15-yard penalty.

McKay said that player safety was the impetus behind the rule, but the NFL hasn’t revealed the injury data to support it. In either event, the change would be significant, and it would alter a lot of what you see on running plays. Retired NFL referee Terry McAulay, now an analyst for NBC Sports, offered this example:

Will it work? Rule changes that require technique adjustments can take some time. Presumably, fewer blocks below the waist would lessen the risk for lower-body injuries. But it would be surprising if it leads to a notable rise in flags. In recent years, the NFL has used warning letters and sometimes fines — rather than strict on-field enforcement of new rules — to impose safety-related changes to the game.


Loss of down after two passes

You might remember a Week 11 game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams, during which Bucs quarterback Tom Brady caught a deflected third-down pass and threw it to receiver Mike Evans for an 8-yard gain. Such passes are illegal, and Brady was penalized. But Rams coach Sean McVay declined the penalty because he didn’t want to give the Bucs a second attempt at converting a third down.

This week, owners approved a tweak that would also add a loss of down to such plays.

Will it work? Yes. But this change is a perfect example of why the NFL rulebook is so complicated and full of inorganic addendums. This was a response to a single and rare play that occurred over the course of a 40,000-play season.


No overtime in the preseason

Mercifully, finally and at long last, the NFL has eliminated overtime for games that don’t count anyway. The only thing better than ending overtime for preseason games would be abolishing the preseason altogether. For anyone keeping score, of course, there hadn’t been an overtime game in preseason since 2014, and we’ve seen only 16 since the start of 2001, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But it wasn’t worth the risk of such a ridiculous exercise.

Will it work? YES!


Addressing offensive holding

The competition committee spent a significant portion of the winter and spring working to understand why offensive holding calls plummeted by more than 40% in 2020 to their lowest per-game total since 1972. The unexpected drop led to a predictable result. Teams pushed the limit on what officials would allow, and line play in some late-season games more closely resembled professional wrestling than high-level football.

According to McKay, the standard for offensive holding won’t change in 2021. What will happen is that senior vice president of training and development Walt Anderson will create what McKay said will be a “long video” to teach officials, coaches and players what should and shouldn’t be called this season. One key phrase you will hear a lot this season is “material restriction,” the point where a lineman has altered a defender’s path or angle of pursuit, triggering what should be a flag based on the rulebook.

“You want to make sure that everybody understands what the standard is and what’s going to be called,” McKay said, “and the best way to do that is through video.”

Will it work? It depends on what your expectation is. No one expects a dramatic increase in holding calls to counter last season’s drop. Teams should have a better idea of what is to come than they did in 2020, but at the moment, my 2020 advice remains valid: If you want to win, teach your offensive linemen to hold. There is every reason to think they’ll get away with it in 2021 more often than not.


Emphasis on taunting

The NFL has experienced a familiar cycle with taunting fouls in recent years. It began in 2016, with a surge of flags for celebrations, ball-spinning and twerking. The league backed off in the ensuing years, especially as it related to post-touchdown celebrations, but McKay said that a number of coaches are concerned that enforcement has gotten “too lax.”

Indeed, there were only 11 taunting penalties last season and nine in 2019. In 2016 alone, there were 34.

Officials won’t focus on celebrations but are expected to more strictly enforce rules against actions that bait or otherwise engender ill will between teams.

Will it work? Sure. There will be more flags for taunting in 2021. Players may or may not adjust, and life will go on.


Spot and choose

It’s not unusual to see teams propose a rule that is a year or two ahead of its time. This season, the Baltimore Ravens and Eagles put forth one that is probably a decade away from being fully understood — much less accepted — by a majority of NFL owners.

Under the proposal, the winner of an overtime coin toss would choose between taking the first possession or deciding the spot on the field where the first possession would begin. The loser of the toss would make the other choice.

There aren’t many people around the league who fiercely oppose the current overtime procedures, which require one possession per team unless the first possession results in a touchdown. According to league data, the rate of overtime games with possessions for both teams is about 80%.

With that said, the Ravens noted in their proposal that the team with the first possession is 9-1 in the past 10 playoff games with overtime. This rule would give the kicking team more power. If, for example, the coin-toss winner chose possession, the kicking team could ensure that it began as far away from the end zone as possible — on its own 1-yard line.

The Ravens/Eagles proposal would probably be more fair, and it would certainly add a new level of strategy and entertainment to the game. But without a searing problem to fix anything, and with such a novel idea to absorb, it wasn’t hard to predict its lack of support. It’s worth noting that The Spring League, which often serves as a rule incubator, will incorporate this proposal during its upcoming season.

“I like ideas that are out of the box,” McKay said. “And that was an out of the box. I had heard it before, but I hadn’t heard it articulated quite that way. I thought Baltimore did a really good job explaining it. Ideas like that take a long time to marinate and understand all of the implications of what may happen and all the unintended consequences. It didn’t have a lot of support, but I’ve been around rules before that didn’t have a lot of support but then all of a sudden pass.”

Will it work? Yes — one day.



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