10 Rules That Are Haunting the NFL
In 2013, Halloween officially marks the start of the second half of the NFL season—a nine-week journey to separate the league's superheroes from the living dead.
(True story: One year for Halloween, a friend and I dressed up like the guys from Bosom Buddies, but at the last minute he got cold feet and changed costumes to trick or treat as a football player. He was Tom Rathman, eye black and all. I stayed in my dress. Half the houses thought I was just a girl who forgot to wear a costume.)
With that horrifying skeleton out of the closet, let's ring the bell back to the here and now. The NFL is more popular than ever—even more popular than a time when boys dressed up like blocking fullbacks in exchange for candy—but the league is far from perfect.
There are a lot of rules in today's NFL, and while most attempt to make the game better, some have no rhyme or reason for existing, while others actually serve to make the game worse.
Here is a look at 10 rules that currently haunt the NFL. Get it? Haunt? Because…it's…Halloween? (Booooooo! Just get to the list!)
Forget about haunting; let's talk about taunting.
In the wake of Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate overtly taunting a defender in the Seahawks' win over the St. Louis Rams, word is the NFL is rethinking its taunting rule.
Presently, the taunting rule is considered a dead-ball foul, meaning the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is enforced after the play. That may change next year, as Dean Blandino, head of officiating for the NFL, said the league might suggest changing the taunting rule to how the college game enforces it. From ESPN.com:
A lot of people felt that the touchdown shouldn't have counted [but] a taunting foul is always treated as a dead-ball foul, meaning whatever happened during the play counts, and the foul is enforced on the next play, which would be the kickoff. In college, this action would take back the touchdown.
This is insane. If the NFL wants to assess a 15-yard penalty after the fact because a guy is a jerk, fine. Actually, fine...as in fine the player for bringing ill repute on the shield, or whatever verbiage the commissioner's office wants to use for players showing a modicum of personality—even in a negative way—on the field.
Was Tate out of line? Sure, and he admitted it after the fact. To suggest taking a way a touchdown in professional football because a guy was being a jerk on the way into the end zone is absolutely ludicrous.
To some extent, the rule makes sense in college. Those are amateur athletes who are often on the field against far inferior talent where taunting the opponent can be tantamount to bullying.
In the NFL, though? If you get burned on a deep pass and the receiver taunts you, suck it up and get him back next time. For the NFL to consider negating a touchdown because a player made a taunting gesture is the epitome of a football nanny state.
Let them play the game. Yes, even the jerks.
Illegal Pushing, Volume 1
The New England Patriots lost a game to the New York Jets two weeks ago because an interior lineman on a long field-goal attempt pushed one of his teammates in the butt, drawing a flag and giving the Jets another chance at a much closer game-winning kick.
As one might imagine, Bill Belichick was apoplectic at the call. A week later, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter that those same officials missed the same call against the Jets in the same game. Whoops.
The first was Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones pushing a teammate to help block Nick Folk's field goal attempt, prompting an unnecessary roughness penalty that enabled Folk to try what turned out to be a game-winning field goal from 42 yards.
The league also showed Stephen Gostkowski's field goal with 19 seconds remaining in regulation, when New York's Quinton Coples committed the same infraction, according to the sources.
Umpire Tony Michalek, who called the penalty on the Patriots, did not call it on the Jets even though the league admitted in the video that both were rules violations.
It's clear the rule was put in place in an effort to avoid any accidental injury to players on either side of the line. There is already a rule about covering the snapper, and this pushing rule expounds upon that, providing some semblance of order in the field-goal scrum.
Safety is important, but this rule is over the top, and it's already changed the outcome of a game that could have playoff ramifications.
Oh, and let's add in the rule that a player can't jump on a teammate's back to try to block a kick to this pile. Why not?
Why can't Troy Polamalu run up and jump on a lineman's back to try to block a kick? The defense should be allowed to do whatever it takes on that side of the line of scrimmage to stop the offense.
Human pyramid? Go for it, but be mindful of the fake.
The pushing rule is nearly impossible to enforce evenly, as evidenced by the result in the Patriots-Jets game. But it's just one of a few unnecessary rules the officials are calling on field goals. Giving the defense more opportunity to block kicks would make the game far more exciting in special teams situations.
Illegal Pushing, Volume 2
The enforcement of the pushing rule on defense is especially silly when compared to the pushing rule on offense, which is almost never called.
Rule 12, Section 1, Article 4—OTHER PROHIBITED ACTS
No offensive player may:
(a) pull a runner in any direction at any time; or
(b) use interlocking interference, by grasping a teammate or by using his hands or arms to encircle the body of a teammate; or
(c) trip an opponent; or
(d) push or throw his body against a teammate to aid him in an attempt to obstruct an opponent or to recover a loose ball.
Penalty: For assisting the runner, interlocking interference, tripping, or illegal use of hands, arms, or body by the offense: Loss of 10 yards.
How many times in a game do we see a runner stacked up just shy of the goal line or first-down marker when a husking lineman comes in to "push the pile" across the threshold? Invariably, the color analyst in that situation lauds the "second effort" by the runner, extolling the virtue of "never giving up on the play" while championing the assistance from the rest of the team.
But it's a violation. It's against the rules of the game.
In the same explanation of the rule, the NFL rulebook provides an example, which states:
A.R. 12.2 Second and goal on B2. Runner A1 gets to the line of scrimmage and is stopped but A2, who is behind him, pushes him from behind and shoves him over the goal line.
Is it a penalty, or a touchdown? If the rule says it's illegal, why is it so rarely enforced? And if it's not enforced on offense when a player is trying to score, why in the world is it being enforced on special teams when a player is trying to block a kick?
The Defenseless Player
The defenseless player rule is important, as it serves to protect players from catastrophic injuries. Here is the rule, in full:
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7: Players in a Defenseless Posture. It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
(a) Players in a defenseless posture are:
(1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;
(2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player;
(3) A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;
(4) A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;
(5) A player on the ground;
(6) A kicker/punter during the kick or during the return (Also see Article 6(g) for additional restrictions against a kicker/punter);
(7) A quarterback at any time after a change of possession (Also see Article 8(f) for additional restrictions against a quarterback after a change of possession);
(8) A player who receives a ―blindside block when the offensive blocker is moving toward or parallel to his own end line and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side, and
(9) A player who is protected from an illegal crackback block (see Article 2);
(10) The offensive player who attempts a snap during a Field Goal attempt or a Try Kick.
The rule is clear in trying to protect quarterbacks, kickers and anyone in line to receive a blindside hit. The rule does not, however, protect the defense.
Scoring is up in the NFL thanks in large part to rules like this that were put in place to protect the offensive players, but few rules serve to protect those on defense. For example, it's illegal for a defender to hit a receiver coming across the middle of the field trying to catch a ball, but there is no rule in place to protect the defender trying to make a clean tackle who gets hit by that same receiver lowering his helmet to brace for impact.
Moreover, running backs have been taught for generations to protect the ball by lowering their pad level, thereby lowering their helmet to be used as the first line of protection.
Defensive players cannot lead with their helmets, but offensive players can.
If the NFL is truly concerned about the safety of its players, they should actually penalize helmet-lowering by runners trying to initiate contact with the defenders. Protect the players on both sides of the ball, not only those trying to score.
(Yes, it's true there was a new rule for offensive players this season, but have you seen it called? I haven't. Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith wrote a couple weeks ago that it's been enforced four times.)
Completing the Catch
This is more widely known as the Megatron Rule:
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 Completed or Intercepted Pass. A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).
Note 1: It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.
Note 2: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.
If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.
If a player catches the ball in the air in the end zone, lands both feet in bounds then gets hit and falls to the ground, the official should not have to wait until he hits the ground to determine if the ball was caught.
Running backs can sneak one dimple of leather across a single white blade of grass at the goal line and it's considered a touchdown, but when a receiver catches the ball, lands in bounds and then the ball is dislodged, it's not a score.
This is a rule someone in a boardroom cooked up that makes sense in theory but is a disaster in practicality. By this logic, the NFL should also change the touchdown rule so the entire ball must be completely across the goal line for a score.
It makes no sense why a receiver must complete the catch when a runner doesn't have to complete the run.
Plays Under Review
Speaking of plays at the goal line, the updated rule to review all scoring plays is good, but it's not good enough, and it's constantly putting NFL officials in a tough position at the game's most important times.
Rule 15, Section 9, Article 4 Reviewable Plays. The Replay System will cover the following play situations only:
(a) When the on-field ruling is governed by the Sideline, Goal Line, End Zone, and End Line:
1. Scoring plays, including the ball breaking the plane of the goal line.
2. Pass complete/incomplete/intercepted at sideline, goal line, end zone, and end line.
That's just part of the rule that applies to this situation. I chose that to illustrate the wording that a play is reviewable to determine if the ball crossed the plane of the goal line, yet the NFL's implementation only calls for review if the play is ruled a score on the field.
In situations where the officials call a player down before getting into the end zone, a review must be initiated by the coach, even if replays show the ball crossed the goal line. (Note: a previous version of this page referenced the Bills winning a challenge against the Saints. I apologize for my Red Zone-addled brain remembering that sequence wrong.)
The point of replay in those situations is to get scoring plays right, so it stands to reason that any potential scoring play should be reviewed, not just the plays called as such on the field.
Sure, checking every play would take longer, but not if the NFL used a replay system like in college where reviews were handled in a booth upstairs. In that case, the replay official could see five or six angles of a play before the ball is even spotted for the subsequent down.
Every goal-line play should be reviewed, not just every scoring play. The NFL made a good step this year, but it needs to take another to make the rule right.
The Double Foul
Why do penalties offset? If one penalty happens before another, or moreover, if one penalty causes another, why should those violations offset?
Rule 14, Section 5 Fouls by Both Teams (Double Fouls)
Article 1: Double Foul Without Change of Possession. If there is a Double Foul (3-12-2-c) during a down in which there is not a change of possession, the penalties are offset, and the down is replayed at the previous spot. If it is a scrimmage down, the number of the next down and the line to gain is the same as for the down in which the fouls occurred.
There is one exception to that rule, and it's a good one. A 15-yard penalty cannot be offset by a five-yard penalty. Having said that, if a player is being held and lashes out with a personal foul, those penalties would offset.
Why doesn't the NFL take a net difference of the yardage on penalties? More to the point, why doesn't the NFL stop play when there is a clear penalty on the offense? Sure, there is a chance for the defense to get a better result than the penalty—if a lineman is flagged for holding, another defender could intercept a pass, or sack the quarterback and cause a fumble—but blowing the play dead at the immediate time of a violation would completely eliminate any opportunity for offsetting penalties.
If the offense is flagged for an illegal shift, for example, why does play continue, instead of being blown dead like on a false start? Is rewarding the defense with what is ostensibly a free play worth the risk of another needless opportunity in the game to get a player hurt?
When there is a block in the back on a kick return, why does the NFL continue to let the play go on, knowing the ball will be brought back? Because the runner might fumble? Blowing the play dead at the instant a penalty is flagged would save a lot of time, fan anguish and potential for injury. And, most likely, it would eliminate offsetting penalties.
The K Ball
In 1999, the NFL decided to stop kickers from doctoring up the balls to make them go farther and straighter. For some reason, someone in the NFL office thought that was a bad thing.
Thus, the K ball was invented. From a 2011 story on Chargers.com:
In a meeting about this season’s rule changes and points of emphasis, NFL officials explained that new footballs are reserved for kicking plays. Each team receives eight for outdoor games and six for indoor according to [referee Carl] Cheffers.
Marked with the letter “K” and the week number, the K balls are delivered to designated NFL officials at their hotel the night before, straight from the Wilson Factory. They arrive wrapped in tape marked with a “W,” preventing any pre-game tampering. This official guards it and does not allow the boxes to be opened any sooner than the arrival at the game.
The purpose of the regulations is to give all teams the same advantage when it comes to kicking plays during a game.
If all teams have the same advantage, then no team has any advantage.
Semantics aside, the K ball rule is one of those that works, so there is no need to tinker with it, even if it goes against everything today's NFL is all about.
Some years ago, the NFL moved the kickoffs back because there were too many touchbacks, but the NFL kickoff is one of the most dangerous plays in a game, with 22 players essentially running half the length of the field at full speed looking for a collision.
There has been talk for years—in the wake of catastrophic injuries on kickoffs—that the sport should eliminate the practice altogether. Why, then, does the league give kickers a ball with the expressed design to shorten kicks and keep the ball in play?
Kickoffs are very exciting, but there is an increased sentiment they aren't worth the risk. Giving kickers a ball they can easily kick through the end zone is a simple workaround to changing the kickoff rule.
With field position so important in the NFL, what's the harm in giving punters the ability to kick a ball farther? Putting offenses in tougher situations creates more strategy in the game. Besides, a punter kicking a ball farther could lead to more touchbacks, which could actually make field position better.
As for field goals, don't we want a situation where teams can score points more easily? If a 50-yard kick becomes more commonplace, trailing teams will have greater chances to get back into games, leading to a more exciting overall product.
The K ball isn't the worst rule in the NFL, but it just seems utterly unnecessary in today's game.
The Emmitt Smith Rule
This rule is pretty simple: Leave your helmet on, because the NFL is about the team, not the individual.
Rule 12, Section 3 Unsportsmanlike Conduct
Article 1: Prohibited Acts. There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others:
(h) Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player.
This rule comes just after the three rules prohibiting players from excessive celebration, group celebration or using props to celebrate. The No Fun League, indeed. The helmet rule, however, is the most ridiculous.
The rule came about because Emmitt Smith would always take off his helmet after he scored a touchdown, making sure the cameras could see his face. It was brilliant from a marketing standpoint, and it did absolutely no harm to the game.
America got to see the face of one of its stars, and the league, still to this day, wants no part in that.
The Sock Rule
The NFL is hardly "haunted" by this last rule, but it is patently ridiculous. In the rulebook section on how the players must look during the game, there is an entire section on "stockings."
Forget about the Tuck Rule. The Sock Rule is even more ludicrous.
Rule 5, Section 4, Article 3
Equipment, Uniforms, Player Appearance
Stockings (f) Stockings must cover the entire area from the shoe to the bottom of the pants, and must meet the pants below the knee. Players are permitted to wear as many layers of stockings and tape on the lower leg as they prefer, provided the exterior is a one-piece stocking that includes solid white from the top of the shoe to the mid-point of the lower leg, and approved team color or colors (non-white) from that point to the top of the stocking. Uniform stockings may not be altered (e.g., over-stretched, cut at the toes, or sewn short) in order to bring the line between solid white and team colors lower or higher than the mid-point of the lower leg. No other stockings and/or opaque tape may be worn over the one-piece, two-color uniform stocking. Barefoot punters and placekickers may omit the stocking of the kicking foot in preparation for and during kicking plays.
The No Fun League should be the No Calf League. Wait, those letters don't work. Happy Halloween, NFL!
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