The NFL Playing Rules, Bylaw, and Resolution Proposals document for the upcoming 2021 season has been released. Let’s talk about what has been proposed and what to think of it.

Every year, the NFL’s Competition Committee gathers with NFL owners to discuss new rules, bylaws, and resolution proposals to improve the season of football ahead. This season, eleven different rule changes were proposed. The Competition Committee has proposed four rule changes. NFL teams collectively have proposed the other seven.

In this article, we’re going to talk about the eleven rule changes that have been proposed. We’re going to summarize what each proposal means. After that, we will put it into a game example on how it will be implemented and what it affects. Lastly, we will discuss the chances of such a rule passing.

Finally, the key while reading the proposed amendments. When you see a strikethrough, that is the proposed removal from the rule. When you see underlined words, that it the proposed addition to the rulebook.

1. Eliminating overtime in the preseason

Last season, we were not reminded at how awful preseason football can be sometimes. When the deep ranks of players enter the game in the fourth quarter, it’s oftentimes unwatchable. The competition committee has suggested eliminating overtime from preseason games as a result of those shared sentiments.

If the score is tied at the end of the regulation playing time of all

preseason, regular season, and postseason NFL games, a system of modified sudden-death overtime shall be in effect, pursuant to the following.

NFL Rule 16, section 1, article 1: Score Tied (proposed amendment)

The competition committee has suggested this change to the rulebook for the sake of game presentation and the pace of play. Oftentimes, we’ve seen coached avoid overtime in the preseason for the sake of not having to stay out there longer than the team needs to. I’d say that the chances of this rule change passing are fairly high. I would expect this one to pass.

2. Limiting the number of players in the box on an onside kick attempt

The competition committee is trying to raise the odds of recovering an onside kick attempt for the kicking team. Right now, analytics put the chances of successfully recovering an onside kick right at about 6%, per the 2018 data, but rose to 12.7% in the 2019 season. The proposal to make this part of the game more challenging is to limit the number of receiving players upfront to nine players.

Right now, we oftentimes see all eleven players around the “restraining line” to recover an onside kick attempt. This rule would force teams to place two of those players deep to receive the kickoff by their own end zone, and give the attempting team a one player advantage.

Until the ball is kicked, all receiving team (Team B) players must be inbounds and behind their restraining line, and at least eight, but no more than nine, players must be positioned between their restraining line and a spot 15 yards behind their restraining line (the “setup zone”).

Rule 6, section 1, article 3 (c): Free Kick Formation (proposed amendment)

The competition committee is proposing that the NFL try this new rule for one year to provide excitement and competition. Essentially, they want to make the onside kick more of a factor and a threat to teams who are on the receiving side of it – and give other teams the opportunity to mount a comeback.

I’m thinking that this will pass as well. I’m not sure how many of the owners feel about the current onside rule, or if they want the play to be more competitive. However, the committee made a smart decision by proposing the rule change for one year. That gives the owners a year to look at the results and see how well it works, and then vote in next year’s meeting on whether to keep it as part of the game or remove it.

3. Adding a tight end box and restricting low blocks

The competition committee is proposing adding a “tight end box” that acts about identically as a tackle box.

The Tight End Box is an area that is between two yards outside the normal tackle positions and extends five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage.

Rule 3, section 34,

The idea of a tackle box is to establish a prohibition against blocks below the waist in dangerous situations around the line of scrimmage. As you can see in rule 12:

Blocks below the waist are prohibited in the following situations: By players of either team during a scrimmage down prior to a change of possession unless the contact occurs in the Tight End Box. (Note: Players are prohibited from initiating contact below the waist of an opponent outside of the Tight End Box, except against a runner or a player who is attempting to catch a forward or backward pass.)

Rule 12, section 2, article 4 (d): Blocking Below the Waist (Proposed Amendment)

The competition committee is attempting to limit the number of these dangerous collisions by expanding the tackle box to the tight end box. This will force tight ends to be better blockers and not use the low block on incoming defensive ends.

Blocking below the waist will draw a fifteen yard penalty, per the rules already established. I’d say that this rule has a very good chance to pass, as the price of a good edge rusher rises every season. Owners want to protect their edge rushers and this is a move for player safety.

4. Allowing the Replay Official to communicate more information to the on-field referees.

The competition committee is presenting this rule change alongside the Coaches Subcommittee and the Baltimore Ravens. This rule gives the Replay Official more responsibility and input into the game.

The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating department may consult with on-field officials, or conduct a replay review, or advise the game officials on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present, of and/or to address game administration issues, including, but not limited to:

(a) penalty enforcement;

(b) the proper down;

(c) spot of a foul; and

(d) the game clock;

(e) possession;

(f) completed or intercepted pass;

(g) touching of a loose ball, boundary line, goal line, or end line;

(h) location of the football or a player in relation to the boundary line, the line of scrimmage, the line to gain, or the goal line; or

(i) down by contact (when a player is not ruled down by contact on the field).

Nothing in this Article precludes a Head Coach or Replay Official from initiating a challenge or review otherwise allowed under Rule 15, Section1.

Rule 15, section 3, article 9: Game Administration (Proposed Amendment)

The idea of this rule change is to open communication with the replay official and the referee on the field. It’s an effort to continue to bring competitive equality to the game and make sure that the league gets these calls right. In my opinion, I think this probably gets passed. The usage of the replay official has been heavily criticized in recent months, and this is a good answer to address that.

5. Amending the enforcement of penalties on point after tries

The Chicago Bears submitted this rule amendment that will ensure that penalties committed on point-after tries are enforced properly. Honestly, this probably stems from their game against the Broncos in 2019. Down 13-12 following a touchdown with only a little time remaining, the Broncos lined up for a two-point conversion. However, they failed to snap the ball in time and took a delay of game penalty that pushed the football back to the seven-yard line, and forced an aggravated head coach, Vic Fangio, to send out the extra point team. However, the Bears jumped offsides.

Sep 15, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Chicago Bears kicker Eddy Pineiro (15) kicks the winning field goal as Chicago Bears punter Pat O’Donnell (16) holds the ball in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Because of a strange loophole in the rulebook, the penalty put the Broncos at the one-yard line and allowed them to attempt a two-point conversion. Because the rulebook didn’t speak of multiple penalties occurring during an extra point try, the officials ruled that the Bears penalty was to be enforced from the original line of scrimmage, being the two-yard line. The Broncos scored and took a 14-13 lead. The Bears were able to drive and collect a game-winning field goal regardless.

If a foul results in a retry, Team A will have the option to enforce the penalty from the spot where it attempted the try (previous spot) or from the yard line for the other try option, the location of which is determined by any previously enforced penalty, if applicable.

Rule 11, section 3, article 3: Fouls Committed During Try (Proposed Amendment)

What this proposal would change is that any penalties previously enforced during the extra point try would still be enforced between decisions. In this instance, the half-distance rule would be applied from the seven-yard line due to the delay of the game penalty. This is supposed to better the competitive equality of the game.

I’m not sure if this one will pass or not. The owners have shown a tendency in the past to not add rules that would very scarcely be used. However, if the situation unfolds in a way that negatively impacts a franchise, I’d fully expect the owners to re-introduce the change and apply it moving forward.

6. Amending the illegal forward pass rule

The Los Angeles Rams are introducing a new adjustment to the “illegal forward pass” rule following their matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year.

Basically, Buccaneers quarterback, Tom Brady, caught one of his passes that was batted at the line of scrimmage. Instead of trying to advance the football, he threw the ball downfield, a second forward pass, and completed a pass to Mike Evans for an eight yard gain. Because the play resulted in a fourth-and-two, and the penalty would have pushed Tampa back five yards and put them into a third-and-fifteen situation. The Rams declined the penalty.

For a second forward pass from behind the line, or for a forward pass that was thrown after the ball returned behind the line: Loss of down and five yards from the previous spot.

Rule 8, section 1, article 2, penalties C: Legal Forward Pass (Proposed Amendment)

The Rams proposal would change the penalty to include a loss of down for an illegal second forward pass. In the scenario above, the Buccaneers would be put into a fourth-and-fifteen situation and the completion to Mike Evans wouldn’t stand. It makes a lot of sense, considering that an illegal forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage is a penalty and a loss of downs. This rule would help improve competitive equity in the game.

I think that this rule will most likely pass. The Rams gave up a fourth-down conversion and lost the game as a result of this late drive. I think that will be enough for owners to want this rule to change, so as not to get burned on this sort of “loophole” in the future.

7. Expanding jersey number options for certain positions

The Kansas City Chiefs have proposed a change to the numbers that players are allowed to wear across several positions. With the recent growth of the NFL roster, the Chiefs want to free up the single-digit numbers for several other positions without getting the commissioner’s approval.

Currently, the rules allow players to wear numbers outside of the spectrum of their position during the preseason while teams are loaded with 90 man and 75 man rosters. However, once the preseason is over, if any of those players make the final cut, they are expected to change numbers to the slots allowed to their position.

(a) quarterbacks, punters, and placekickers: 1–19;

(b) running backs and defensive backs: 1–49;

(c) running backs, full backs, tight ends, H-backs, and wide receivers: 1–49 and 80-89

(d) offensive linemen: 50–79;

(e) defensive linemen: 50–79 and 90–99;

(f) linebackers: 1–59 and 90–99.

Rule 5, Section 1, Article 2: Players Numbers By Position (Proposed Amendment)

This rule proposal would allow running backs, fullbacks, H-backs, wide receivers, linebackers, and defensive backs to all where single-digit numbers. It also opens up the teen numbers (10-19) to linebackers, running backs, and tight ends.

Again, I don’t have a good feel for how the league owners feel about this rule change. I’ve seen both positive and negative feedback from fans on social media. If I had to guess, I’d say that this rule change gets shot down. The owners don’t want their league feeling amateur. Not saying that these numbers would necessarily do that, but it could be the perception of the Owners who have avoided doing things like this before.

8. Changing the options for the winner of the overtime coin toss and overtime period adjustments

This is one of the more complicated rule change proposals. The Baltimore Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles are proposing changes to the entire overtime period. There’s a lot to cover in this proposed rule change, so we’ll do the best that we can to summarize it. Buckle up, it’s a wild one.

The proposal is that the kickoff will be eliminated and that the game will start 1st and 10 from a “designated spot.” The winner of the coin toss has the option to choose either the “designated spot” and the direction, or they chose to start on offense or defense. From the text of the proposal, it sounds like that spot can be pretty much anywhere on the field.

Not more than three minutes before the kickoff of overtime, the Referee, in the presence of both team’s head coaches or captains, shall toss a coin at the center of the field. Prior to the Referee’s toss, the call of “heads” or “tails” must be made by the head coach or captain of the visiting team. The winner of the toss must choose one of two privileges, and the loser is given the other. The two privileges are:

(a) The option to “Spot” the ball on the field for the first play of overtime, including designation of end zone to be defended. (Overtime will not begin with a kickoff, but rather with a set of downs from scrimmage from the chosen spot.)

(b) The option to “Choose” whether to start on offense or defense from the other team’s designated spot and direction. Regardless of which privilege is chosen by the winner of the toss, privilege (a) is to be exercised before privilege (b), so that the selection of whether to play offense or defense is made after the starting field position is chosen.

The teams take the field to play a ten minute period, first team to score wins. From the sound of the proposal, it looks like a team could sock their opponent and make them start at their own one yard line.

Following an intermission of no more than three minutes after the end of the regular game, the extra period shall commence. As determined by the coin toss and head coaches’ or captains’ choices, play will begin without a kickoff from the designated field position, in the designated direction, and with the designated team on offense. The team next scoring by any method will be the winner.

Another interesting note; this proposal includes preseason overtime periods. Obviously, if this is a rule that the league wants to implement, I’m sure that they will make the necessary adjustments to the proposal. The intention of the proposal is to install a true sudden-death overtime period, creating excitement and making the overtime period more competitive.

I don’t think that the league will buy this. I think that it’s too sudden of a change. I’m judging based on the last five years of rule change proposals, and I could be totally wrong with this one. It’s a very intriguing concept, just not a likely one that the owners will likely want to implement.

9. Eliminating sudden death format in overtime

Another difficult rule change to understand while going over the proposal, so again I will try to make this easy to understand. Proposed by the Baltimore Ravens, the idea takes on many of the same characteristics that rule 8 proposes. In fact, the entire eliminating kicks and spotting the football rule applies here too. However, things take a change with how the period is played.

Following an intermission of no more than three minutes after the end of the regular game, the extra period shall commence. As determined by the coin toss and head coaches’ or captains’ choices, play will begin without a kickoff from the designated field position, in the designated direction, and with the designated team on offense.

The length of the extra period will be 7 minutes and 30 seconds. Each team shall be entitled to two timeouts for this period, and if there is an excess timeout, the usual rules shall apply (4-5). The general provisions for the fourth quarter of a game, including timing, shall play.

The extra period will continue until the expiration of the game clock. At the conclusion of the period, the team with the higher score will be declared the winner. If the score is tied at the end of the period, the game shall result in a tie.

Rule 16, Section 1, Article 4 (Proposed Amendment)

Basically, the overtime period would be a 7:30 period that would be played in full, much like basketball overtime. Each team would have two timeouts and would play until the end of the clock. The Ravens make it clear that they believe this format would create excitement and make the period more competitive. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this proposal does include eliminating the preseason overtime period.

The problem that I could see is that teams could run up the score in the closing minutes of the overtime period unnecessarily. Especially in rivalry games – it’s hard to imagine the Ravens passing on the opportunity to run a score up on the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example. It would become a pride issue and kill the interest on the television market in those instances.

I don’t believe that the NFL owners will approve this proposal too. I’m not sure if they’re ready to move to such an overtime period. While such an overtime period is intriguing, it’s such a drastic change from what fans are accustomed to seeing now that I don’t believe the owners will be willing to make the change.

10. Adding an additional try in place of the onside kick

The Philadelphia Eagles have proposed a rule change that would add an additional option to the onside kick. The proposition was tabled in the rules meeting last year, meaning that the owners were overall interested but at the time were more focused on getting through a season during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that the pandemic is clearing up, the owners are looking back at improving the game.

As an alternative to a free-kick, a team may elect to retain possession, subject to the following rules:

(1) A team may elect to retain possession no more than two times during the game.

(2) The kicking team must notify the Referee of its intention to forego a kickoff or safety kick and retain possession.

(3) The ball will be spotted on the kicking team’s 25-yard line, and the kicking team will possess the ball with the down and distance being fourth and 15 (line to gain is the kicking team’s 40-yard line).

(4) Play clock will be set to 25 seconds and starts on the ready for play signal. Game clock starts on the snap, and normal NFL timing rules apply.

(5) Standard scrimmage play rules apply.

(6) If the offense reaches the line to gain, the result of the play is a first down and all customary rules are in effect. If the defense stops the offense, the defense assumes possession at the dead-ball spot.

(7) If the offense is penalized on the one scrimmage down (fourth and 15), the offense cannot elect to then kick off after the penalty is enforced. Example: The kicking team may not elect to kick after incurring a holding penalty on the one scrimmage down.

(8) Scrimmage kicks are prohibited.

(9) Nothing in this exception prohibits a team from attempting a legal onside kickoff under Rule 6.

Rule 6, Section 1, Article 1 (c) (Proposed Amendment)

Let’s summarize this in a nutshell:

The team attempting an onside kick could elect to play a timed down in a fourth-and-fifteen situation from their own 25-yard line. If the offense makes their 40-yard line, they maintain possession. If they don’t, they surrender the football at the dead-ball spot. Teams would only be able to use this option twice in a game. The idea for the proposal is to improve competitive equality and increase fan engagement.

I think it’s an intriguing idea, but I can see the league declining this option and instead opting for the rule change discussed above. The one-year proposal to decrease the number of players in the box may be something that the league will try before trying to add another method to attempt to keep the football.

11. Adding an eighth official to the crews

The Baltimore Ravens have proposed adding an eight-member of the officiating crew: the Booth Umpire. The Ravens have proposed that the Booth Umpire will have full communication on the field with the officiating crew and will have access to television monitors.

A similar concept was ran in the XFL’s debut last year, before the league folded to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The communication was also broadcasted on television during reviews, which allowed for a lot of transparency. The NFL may be open to doing something similar to this.

The game shall be played under the supervision of seven eight

officials: the Referee, Umpire, Down Judge, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge, and Back Judge, and Booth Umpire. In the absence of seven eight officials, the crew is to be rearranged according to the remaining members of the crew.

Rule 19, Section 1, Article 1: Game Officials (Proposed Amendment)

The basic premise of the proposal is to help see what the on-field officials miss. This proposal was introduced to increase competitive equality, increase the pace-of-play, and improve player health and safety.

I’m thinking that the NFL knows that there is an officiating problem. As a result, they are looking for responses to solve the situation. Putting an official in the booth with a monitor and full communication on the field could be an answer to part of that problem. Personally, I love the idea and I think it would help tremendously. However, it’s not my call, it’s the call of the NFL owners. Who knows how they feel about this.

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By John Vogel

NFL Draft Analyst. Dad.

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