Important rules changes are the undercard at this year’s owners meetings

Doug Farrar

Beyond the specter of bounties and salary cap arbitrations, there are some interesting rules changes to be discussed at the NFL's owners meetings, which begin Monday in Florida. Atlanta Falcons team president Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee, went through the proposed rules changes and bylaw changes on a recent media conference call. The changes proposed below, with our take on each one.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 1 "is submitted by Buffalo.  It is a change to instant replay in which Buffalo proposes that the replay official in the booth make all decisions in the booth as opposed to the referee.  That is the only change in the rule they proposed.  That would move the decisions from the referee to upstairs."

No objection here. If it takes less time for the video feed to hit the booth than it does for Mr. Referee to waddle over to the sideline to look at the play, fine. Let's just make sure those guys in the booth have true HD and all the possible angles.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 2 "is submitted by Pittsburgh.  It is a proposal in which they want to modify the horse collar tackle rule.  The rule now provides an exception to horse collar tackles to the quarterback inside the pocket.  They proposed that the exception be taken out.  In other words, if a quarterback inside the pocket is tackled by a horse collar tackle, it would be a 15-yard penalty.  It currently is not."

The NFL overreacted a bit two years ago with the contact rule, which resulted in any defender who even breathed on a quarterback getting flagged whether the contact was incidental or not. Last year, the Competition Committee backed off and told the refs to flag only for intentional contact. Neither solution was ideal, because the more subjectivity you give a group of officials, the wider swings in interpretation you're going to get. Last season, John Parry's crew called nine roughing the passer penalties, and the crews run by Tony Corrente, Ron Winter and Scott Green each called one. There are officials in the game who have no business being there, but even the good refs are waylaid by exceedingly broad rule structure. The more specificity, the better.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 3 "is also submitted by Pittsburgh.  It is a proposal in which they ask that the postseason overtime rule be used in the regular season also.  It would be a change in what we call the 'Opportunity to Possess Rule'  that now occurs in our postseason.  They would propose that it would also be used in the regular season."

The playoff overtime rule states that both teams will possess the ball in overtime, unless the first team with the ball scores a touchdown or a safety. If the first team scores a field goal, the second team gets the ball and can obviously win with a touchdown. If the second team tied the game with a field goal, the next team to score wins. It's a good solution to an overtime system that I have always considered unfair, and most football fans tend to prefer the college OT rules, anyway.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 4 "is a cleanup rule about the kicking of the football.  If you kick a football and it happens by the offensive team before possession changes, then it is a loss of a scrimmage down.  It is really because there are some instances in which the kicking team gains an advantage or isn't penalized substantially on a muffed kick by kicking the ball.  We wanted to marry it up with the college rule and make it also a loss of down — a simple cleanup rule."

The proposed penalty is actually a loss of down and 10 yards.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 5 "is an adoption, if you will, or a proposal to adopt the college rule on too many men on the field.  It would be a dead-ball foul now as it is in college.  If you line up on offense for more than three seconds or if on defense you line up and the snap is imminent, then the official will shut the play down and it will be a dead-ball foul, five yards and you go from there.  You would still have the same situation if a player is trying to run off the field or something like that.  In that case, it would be a live-ball foul and a five-yard penalty.  It deals a little bit with, and is a little bit of a reaction, obviously, to the Super Bowl [XLVI] play."

The play McKay refers to is a penalty against the Giants in the Super Bowl for 12 men on the field. More and more teams will be willing to take the penalty to stop the play if they're having trouble with the other team's ability to stop the no-huddle offense. The Giants have actually been pretty creative in this regard -- there have also been accusations of on-field flops to slow the game down. Defenses will continue to find ways to slow the no-huddle down, and I think you can expect this to be a major topic of conversation in future Competition Committee meetings.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 6 "is an expansion of our defenseless player rules.  All we are doing there is we have always given crackback protection to the defensive player from the low block from the person who is lined up outside and blocks inside and goes low.  You guys have heard it forever.  We have said that if he has crackback protection, the (offensive player) cannot go low.  We propose that the protection be expanded to defenseless player protection, which means you cannot go low but you also cannot hit him in the head nor lead with the head against that player.  We just think that player is in a very vulnerable position inside, and we are trying to give that defensive player a little more protection."

We'll see how this is called if it goes through, but at some point, the league is going to have to adjust the uniforms to show the two-inch area defenders are allowed to hit.

Playing Rule Proposal No. 7 "is our last Playing Rule Proposal.  It is an instant replay proposal submitted by the Competition Committee.  Last year, we proposed that you would be able to review scoring plays.  This year we would expand that and try to propose that you would be able to review scoring plays and additionally review what we will call 'traditional turnovers.' When I say review, I mean that a review would be instigated by the replay official upstairs.  As you know, last year we changed that.  We took scoring plays from the coaches and put it upstairs as an automatic review for him (the replay official) to confirm.  If he (the replay official) felt it needed to be reviewed by the referee, then he stopped the game. We would use that same procedure for turnovers — fumbles, interceptions and the like.  That would be an expansion of the replay assistant's capabilities and take it out of the hands of the coaches, without affecting in any way the coach's ability to still have three challenges if he gets the first two right or two challenges if he doesn't."

I like this proposal, because it does make another type of review automatic and takes it out of the hands of the coaches. I would like to expand the automatic review to include not just scoring plays, but all plays that occur in the end zone at any point in the play development, whether the initial result is a called touchdown or not.

The bylaw proposals are also important. There are proposals to give teams playing on Thanksgiving and Christmas to have the same waiver procedure as other teams playing night games (seems obvious); to move the trade deadline from the sixth week of the season to the eighth week; to increase the training camp roster limit from 80 players to 90 (more opportunities for undrafted free agents); to give teams an injured reserve exemption allowing them to bring a player back from IR in-season; and to give teams more flexibility when adding concussed players to the inactive list.