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Updating the NFL Rulebook

Lots of rule changes were thrown around at the owners meetings. Which ones made the cut?

Nothing gets the NFL offseason fires stoked quite like voting on things! The league’s 32 teams did just that this week at the owners meetings, discussing 22 different possible rule changes. Eight of those changes ended up being adopted in one form or another, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some of the tabled arguments eventually succeed, either. The most curious and impactful debate might very well be the one getting a national workout without being pushed through the traditional channels.

First, let’s talk about the rules that actually went to a vote yesterday, starting with a classic everybody-wins, why-didn’t-this-happen-years-ago candidate:

The Approved Rule Changes

The league’s goalposts are to be raised by five feet: Finally! Eighteen months after his Patriots lost to the Ravens on a field goal that might not actually have gone through the uprights,1 Bill Belichick’s proposal for raising the goalposts from 30 to 35 feet was unanimously voted through. Adam Carolla’s goalpost dream has come true.

Obviously, this will matter only on a few plays every year, but those field goal attempts might end up making the difference between winning and losing a game. My suspicion is that it will actually reduce accuracy a tiny bit because of the entirely anecdotal observation that referees tend to wave through field goals that are exceedingly close (like the Ravens kick from 2012). Having five extra feet of goalpost up there is more likely to keep those borderline kicks out than it is to help them through.

The only downside, I suppose, is that a 35-foot falling goalpost would be more dangerous than a 30-foot goalpost would. That’s a college tradition that, for a variety of reasons, hasn’t been a recent professional staple. I started thinking: Which franchise’s fans would be most likely to tear down their own goalposts in celebration? You would need fans who didn’t care about the repercussions, security who would be smart enough to realize they weren’t stopping it from happening, and a team so starved for winn— it’s totally the Raiders, right? When Blake Bortles leads the 2014 Raiders to an unlikely playoff spot in the final week of the season, those goalposts in the Coliseum are coming down. And judging by the rest of the stadium’s reliability, they might disintegrate on impact.

Dunking through the uprights is banned, and other forms of taunting will be reenforced: Do you know a single person who doesn’t watch the NFL because there’s too much taunting going on? Somebody who ran away from the television screaming during the Panthers-49ers playoff game because, amid season-ending injuries and late hits, there happened to be too much shit-talking after the end of the play? Come on. Jeff Fisher suggested afterward that the league wanted to codify its penalties to set an example for the college level, but if the NFL really wanted to do that, it should have added something to the rulebook about making sure players get paychecks.

The move to ban dunks through the uprights is, according to the league, tied to the increase in upright size and the delay caused by a Jimmy Graham dunk last season. It has nothing, I’m sure, to do with the retirement of Tony Gonzalez, who used this as a touchdown celebration for years before retiring.2 I’m not sure how the size argument matters here — it’s going to be a big problem if a goalpost falls, regardless of whether it’s a 30-foot one or a 35-foot one — and it’s not like the NFL banned sprinkler systems after a water malfunction delayed a Seahawks-Dolphins game in 2012. The possibility of somebody getting hurt hasn’t stopped the Lambeau Leap. And what about the epidemic of players hitting security people in the face during their touchdown celebrations?

It will be interesting to see how the league’s players respond, because there are a lot of ways to test the limits of this rule. Can players do layups? Jumpers? What about one of those Blake Griffin deals where he throws the ball into the hoop violently from two feet away and calls it a dunk? I just want to see a Kirk Goldsberry shot chart plotted against an end zone before 2014 is up.

Referees will have the ability to consult with officials in New York during replay challenges: A long-overdue improvement to the replay system, if one that stops too short. The whole idea of the on-field replay system is silly and constantly undergoing changes. Remember when officials were supposed to have only 90 seconds to make a decision? Instead, regardless of when the video cuts off, we have referees ducking underneath a bizarre contraption (with security!) to make calls based on clips from a screen tinier than the one you have in your living room.3 At least the screens in there are in HD now, a standard that took until 2010 to apply leaguewide.

The best way to implement any replay system is to use people whose sole job is to worry about replay, regardless of whether that person is in a booth upstairs in a stadium or in a centralized location. If their primary responsibility is to look at each play immediately after it happens for possible challengeable calls, they’ll have more time to look at angles to make the right call and even be able to make that call much more quickly than in the current setup. I can see referees being upset if a decision on a key play is taken out of their hands, but a simple two-step process makes sense. If a call is indisputable, a replay judge should be able to make that decision from afar. If the call isn’t indisputable based on an initial look at video evidence, then you should get the on-field referee involved.

Replay judges can now review the recovery of a loose ball in the field of play: This will end up known as the “NaVorro Bowman Rule” after Bowman’s fumble recovery in the NFC Championship Game was ignored on replay because it wasn’t reviewable. And hell no, I’m not linking to that video. Get well soon, NaVorro.

The game clock will now run after quarterback sacks after the two-minute warning: I wouldn’t count on Kevin Kolb leading your favorite team on a dramatic comeback inside of two minutes anytime soon.

Roll-up blocks, already banned from the back, are now banned from the side as well: Evoking another injury suffered by a 49ers defender, this rule would outlaw the sort of low block that ended nose tackle Ian Williams’s season.

The league also voted to enforce defensive fouls behind the line of scrimmage at the spot of the foul and enforce a 4 p.m. final-cut deadline after the fourth preseason game.

The Tabled Rule Changes

Each of these proposed changes will be discussed at a future date.

Move the extra point to the 25-yard line: The league will instead run a two-week preseason trial with extra points on the 20-yard line.

Turning extra points into what would be a 43-yard field goal attempt would certainly make it a more meaningful play. Kickers are virtually perfect on extra points; over the past five years, they’ve hit on 76.2 percent of their attempts from the 25-yard line. That figure would rise as kickers practiced hitting from that exact range, and my suspicion is that about 80 percent of extra-point tries from the 25 would go through.

It’s an interesting strategic question to consider. It should certainly incentivize teams to go for two more frequently, since it would change the value proposition involved. Now, since teams are almost always ensured one point by going for it, two-point conversions make sense only in a vacuum, if you think you can succeed more than 50 percent of the time. Teams have converted at a 48.2 percent clip over the past five years. If you’re going to succeed on only 80 percent of your extra-point attempts, the break-even rate changes; were this rule to go into effect, you would need to succeed on only more than 40 percent of your two-point conversions to justify going for two every time.4 It should turn a number of clubs (Carolina being the obvious example) into teams that primarily go for two, but since this is the NFL, I doubt that will happen.

It would also have some interesting effects on kicker value. In a way, it might seem like it should make kickers more valuable by virtue of giving them more opportunities to make meaningful kicks. The average team attempts about 40 extra points each year, so the difference between a kicker who hits 90 percent of his extra points from the 25-yard line and a kicker who hits 70 percent on the same attempts would be eight extra points per season. On the other hand, we also know there’s no year-to-year consistency for a kicker’s field goal percentage, and that’s likely to be the case for these 40 additional extra-point attempts each year, too. So while teams might pay more for the security of a reliable kicker, they’ll still be just as unlikely to end up with one.

Personally, I think extra points are fine the way they are.

Install cameras on the goal line, end lines, and sidelines to make replay decisions easier: It’s amazing that hasn’t already been implemented, let alone that it’s been tabled for another year. Belichick proposed this rule and suggested the league run a bake sale to pay for the cameras. I’m all for both these things. The NFL should absolutely install the cameras. But it should make the league’s executives host a bake sale, too. Belichick could prepare his famous gruel cookie. Chip Kelly can promise to serve fresh cookies every 13 seconds. And Reggie McKenzie could refuse to buy ingredients and end up serving a bag of expired chocolate chips nobody wants.

Allow teams to open or close their roofs at halftime: This was a suggestion from the Colts, one of four teams in the NFL with a retractable roof. It seems horribly unfair. If you’re playing indoors while a huge snowstorm looms outside and you go up 21-0 by the end of the first half, aren’t you going to open up your roof at halftime? This feels like some elaborate plan to get Trent Richardson going.

Eliminate overtime in the preseason: Preseason overtime is currently played almost exclusively for the amusement of sports bettors. I don’t think anybody else is calling for interminable preseason games to stretch onward. Not sure why this was tabled.

Remove the 1-yard buffer zone for pass interference: Who doesn’t love bubble screens? This would have made offensive coordinators (and defensive coordinators of teams that press their corners at the line) very upset. The league would probably be better off clarifying the rules on offensive linemen blocking downfield, which often goes uncalled when teams run packaged plays and quarterbacks choose to throw the ball.

The league also tabled motions to:

Excluding the opening weekend of the season, allow teams to use a 49-man active roster for games that aren’t played on Sunday or Monday.
Trade players before the league year begins.
Conduct pre-draft timing and testing of up to 10 players at their respective facilities and attend other team testing where three or more draft-eligible players are present.
Increase the size of the practice squad from eight players to 10.

The Rejected Rule Changes

Let coaches challenge any decision made by an official, excluding scoring plays and turnovers: I love this one and wish it had made it through. I also, not coincidentally, write a column called Thank You for Not Coaching every week. Giving coaches a chance to challenge whatever they want would open up all kinds of strategic possibilities and force coaches to be smarter about how they use the challenges available to them, which is a good thing; we should want a system that rewards coaches who are better at their jobs than others and one that does the best job possible of getting calls on the field right.

That’s also probably why most coaches rejected it out of hand. Coaches aren’t especially interested in making this aspect of their job harder, and are more likely to be concerned with the flak they’ll take for incorrectly challenging the wrong play. They haven’t really exhibited a great understanding of how and why they should use their challenges, so giving them more options wouldn’t make things any easier.

The only public argument I’ve seen against this is the idea that it would just give coaches an endless stream of challenges against anything, which isn’t true. Coaches should still start with two challenges and get a third only if they win the first two. Coaches would be more likely to use their challenges during a game, but it shouldn’t have a material difference on game length. The only thing I wonder about is the aphorism that there’s holding on every play regardless of whether it gets called; I suspect teams that get beat by a big game-changing play that doesn’t go for a touchdown might throw a flag out there in a desperate attempt to get a holding call on one of the offensive linemen, which wouldn’t be fun. Even if “challenge anything” doesn’t work, “challenge a lot of the things” would be a worthwhile rule.

Allow replays to review personal foul calls: I’d rather just fold this into the previous rule.

Move kickoffs to the 40-yard line: Washington’s been among the worst special-teams units in football over the past few years, so it’s no surprise it nominated this one. This would have the effect of turning so many kickoffs into touchbacks that the league would basically be better off just eliminating the kickoff altogether.

The league also shot down proposals to have one single cutdown in camp from 90 players down to 53 (as opposed to the current system’s intermediate cut to 75) and turn injured reserve into a system where any player could return after missing a minimum of six weeks.

The Lurking Rule Change

Public speculation and comments from both league officials and new NFLPA president Eric Winston suggest the league wants to expand the playoffs to include 14 teams. (One league source even suggested there was “a lot of momentum” for such a change, which I take as a personal affront.) I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it. What’s wrong with the NFL postseason now? It’s basically perfect. A new system would water down the value of the regular season and put more emphasis on rewarding marginal teams that happen to get hot for a month.

The expanded playoffs would add a seventh team to the proceedings while eliminating the bye for the second-best team in each division. That would produce six games during the opening round of the playoffs, with two games on Saturday, three on Sunday, and one on Monday night, which would be wildly unfair for whichever teams were involved in a weekday playoff game. The league already doesn’t play a Monday-night game during Week 17 to give teams a full week to prepare for the playoffs. You could play three games on each weekend day, but why are we rewarding the seventh-best team in each conference and punishing the second-best team? Last year, that would have added the Cardinals and the Steelers to the playoffs. Does anybody feel like we really missed out by not having those teams in the equation?

The league wants to expand the playoffs, of course, for money. An extra playoff game is worth hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a TV contract, and the league is obviously confident it can add games without reducing demand, but this is the sort of overexposure problem Mark Cuban was talking about when he said the league’s popularity would “implode” in 10 years. I don’t necessarily agree with Cuban, but the idea of a Monday playoff game is a perfect example of his point. Nobody’s complaining about the league’s playoff structure as is. There are other places the NFL can make money. Messing with the league’s broader competitive balance is a bad idea.

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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