NFL rules can be confusing for both first-timers and die-hard ticket holders. So confusing in fact, that coaches, players and even referees sometimes get them wrong. And with the NFL rulebook changing every season including this one, it can be especially difficult to keep up. Before you call them out incorrectly at the Sunday tailgate, study up on five new or amended rules for the 2015 season.
Catch vs. No Catch (Dez Bryant Rule)
One of the most controversial plays from last season was Dez Bryant’s catch-or-no-catch vs. the Green Bay Packers. In the 4th quarter with 4 minutes left on 4th down, Tony Romo lobbed a pass towards the corner at the 1-yard line. It looked as though Bryant had full control of the ball when he came down and the ruling on the field was a catch — but was then overturned, due to the ball touching the ground before Bryant had full control.
The play was so controversial that it sparked the NFL to rewrite the rule that defines a completed catch. As the new rule states: “To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner. A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent.” This re-write replaces the language stating that a player has to make a “football move” after gaining control of the ball to gain a completion. The question at large always loomed as to what exactly a “football move” referred to.
The new language remains confusing. Former VP of Officiating from the NFL attempted to explain it further on his Twitter page earlier this year. “A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner,” he wrote. “If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regain control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.”
If you are still confused, you’re not alone. But the takeaway is this: look for receivers to go out of their way to get two feet down and secure the ball to prove to refs that they’ve made a catch.
In a rule that finally addresses the league’s traumatic brain injury problems, an athletic trainer, who is appointed by the NFL and positioned in the press box, will be allowed to stop the game and have a player removed if concussion or other injury is suspected. The rule change comes after many incidents, but one of the most notable was in the 2014 Super Bowl after Kam Chancellor delivered a crushing blow to Patriots’ wide receiver Julian Edelman. The athletic trainer radioed numerous times to the Patriots’ sideline suggesting they remove Edelman to be checked by medical staff — but to no avail. Edelman went on to score the winning touchdown, but did not look well after the play. The medical time out will hopefully help players get proper treatment after injury is suspected.
There are 122 referees currently officiating in the NFL. Of those 122, seven are on the field at a time, watching roughly 155-160 plays per game. Taking into account those numbers, mistakes are going to be made. Even with the NFL’s referee training and recruitment process, which evaluates referees from top college conferences for participation in their Advanced Development Program, there are lapses in concentration and unfortunate snafus.
But how are referees held accountable for these mistakes? Each week there is a referee review process in which officials from the NFL’s Officiating Development department sit down and watch film from the week’s games. “We are evaluating every play from every game each week. Looking at not only the calls that were made but the calls that should have been made,” says Dan Blandino, VP of Officiating for the NFL in an interview with the NFL. Referees are then given a grade based on the calls that they made. These grades are compiled into a report that determines a referee’s status; the reports being compiled by a third party in contract with the NFL. A referee’s status can change week to week and determines which officials are selected to work the post-season and Super Bowl. “Under our evaluation system, an official’s grades impact his status for potentially working the playoffs and ultimately whether or not he is retained”, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the Associated Press.
There is also a separate governing body called the Competition Committee that reviews controversial calls and suggests rule changes in the off season. The committee is made up of two team presidents, two team owners, two general managers and three head coaches. At the end of each season, every NFL team fills out a survey about competitive balance, player safety, technology and officiating. At their annual meeting the committee then presents their proposal of rule changes to the 32 owners, who vote whether or not to change a rule. In order for there to be a change, 75 percent of the owners must vote in favor of the rule.
Pushing a Teammate at the Line of Scrimmage
This is a newly expanded rule that was first instituted in 2013 in order to protect player safety. It states that no defensive player can push a teammate into the offensive formation to try to disrupt the kicker or otherwise. The exception to this rule is if the offensive team lines up in a nontraditional kicking formation. Previously it only applied to field goals and extra points, but it has now been expanded to punts as well. Violations result in a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.
The first time the foul was called was during the 2013 season during a game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots. As the clock was ticking down, New York Jets kicker Nick Folk lined up for a 56-yard field goal. He missed wide left, but the whistle blew and a foul was called on the Patriots’ Chris Jones when he attempted to push teammate Will Svitek through the offensive line. Folk got another shot at the field goal and split the uprights for a Jets upset win.
Extra Point Rule
Prior to the 2015 season, a touchdown in the NFL was nearly synonymous with at least 7 points — kickers made 99.3 percent of their extra point attempts. The act of the kick had become essentially a waste of time. After pressure from both coaches and fans, the NFL voted in one of its most prominent rule changes of the season: extra points will now be snapped at the 15 yard line rather than the 2, increasing the kick’s distance from 20 yards to 33. Teams going for a two-point conversion will still line up at the 2 yard line.
How much those 13 extra yards will actually change the game is up for debate. Certainly the extra distance puts pressure on kickers. Though stats from last year show how ironclad attempts from this distance were (kickers made 39 out of 41 from 33 yards), the preseason has already seen a dip to 96.5 percent accuracy for extra points (55 out of 57 kicks). The rule also affects the role of the two-point conversion. Last year, teams going for two were successful at a 47.5 percent rate, which means for teams with better goal line offenses and a relatively weak kicker, the appeal of the two-point conversion is stronger.
Roughing the Passer
Roughing the Passer is a powerhouse penalty — there is a fine line between a call and no call, and the results of the penalty are 15 yards and an automatic first down. The basic rules are thus: Roughing the passer can only be called if the quarterback is hit by a defensive player while in a “passing posture.” Additionally the defensive player has to do one of the following: lead with the crown of his helmet, make helmet-to-helmet contact, “more than mild contact”, or any contact with the head of the quarterback.
The “more than mild contact” part is really up to the referee’s discretion which led to some questionable calls during the 2014 season, a trend that will likely continue in 2015. Most notably the 49ers’ Nick Moody’s tackle on Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson in which referee Ed Hochuli deemed that Moody led with the crown of his helmet. After the fact, VP of Officiating Dean Blandino determined that the call was incorrect. “When you look at it on tape, Moody’s head is up and he hits with more of the side and the face mask to the body of the quarterback” he said on the air with NFL Network. “In our review with the ability to look at it in slow motion, it’s not a foul.”
Despite Blandino’s comments, the NFL is continuing to try to protect QBs. As per the NFL Rulebook, “When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the Referee should always call roughing the passer.” And it seems as though these rule clauses to protect quarterbacks are having a distinct effect on the game. According to data compiled by the New York Times, in the 2000 season there were three QBs who threw for 30 or more touchdowns. In 2014, there were nine. The league recognizes that the big name quarterbacks are their moneymakers and will continue to protect them. Former NFL coach and current NFL analyst Steve Mariucci recognizes this. “If we lose a Brett Favre or a Peyton Manning or an Aaron Rodgers for the season, the league isn’t the same, the interest isn’t the same, and the production and quality of the football isn’t the same,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.
Just like any sport, football has an insider’s language. These advanced terms are the perfect way to earn some respect on Sundays.
Nickel Package: when the defensive team lines up in a pass defense formation with five defensive backs: three corner backs and two safeties.
Dime Package: the same formation as the as the nickel package, but with four corner backs and two safeties.
Cut Block: when an offensive players tackles a defensive player by tackling him at his knees; considered dirty, and illegal when the defenseman is already engaged with another player (known as a “chop block”).
Horse Collar: An illegal tackle in which the defensive player grabs the collar of the offensive player’s shoulder pads from behind and pulls him to the ground. The technique was banned in the 2005 season after it caused six major injuries in the 2004 season.
Bootleg: A play in which the quarterback runs towards either sideline with or without a blocker.
Hard Count: when the quarterback changes the cadence in his snap count to try and pull the defense offsides.
Man in Motion: When a single player, normally a wide receiver or running back, moves his position prior to or during the snap; movement must be lateral or backwards.
Mike: another word for middle linebacker, a vital position on defense and usually a leader of the defense.
Sam: another word for a strong side linebacker, who must be versatile as both at both pass and run coverage.
Nose Tackle: In a 3-4 defensive formation in which there are 4 linebackers and 3 lineman, the middle tackle, who usually must take on not just the opposing center but also one or both of the guards; as such, they are usually the biggest player on the roster.
Pancake Block: a block in which the offensive knocks a defensive lineman flat on the ground to open up a hole for the running back.
Trap Run: In a trap run, an offensive lineman “pulls” across to the strong side and blocks the strong side linebacker. This opens up a hole for the running back to move downfield.
False Start: penalty when an offensive player starts in motion before snap. A false start is a “dead ball penalty”, which means that the play stops immediately and carries a 5 yard loss.
Encroachment: a dead-ball penalty in which a defensive player makes contact with an offensive player before the snap and also carries a 5-yard loss.
Neutral Zone Infraction: when a defensive player crosses into the neutral zone at the line of scrimmage causing the offensive player to react.
Offsides: when a defensive player is across the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. This is not a dead-ball penalty and acts as a free play for the offense.