It’s a cold December day, the snow is falling, and a winning field goal attempt is about to take place. But now, don’t ask the grounds crew to come out and shovel the snow out of the way for the kicker. In the recent release of the 2018 NFL rulebook, a note has been added to Rule 13-1-1 that prohibits clearing of snow by non-players prior to any kick play:
It is impermissible for the grounds crew or other team personnel to clear away snow for a Try kick, field goal, punt, or kickoff.
The new rule appeared without much discussion by the Competition Committee during earlier meetings when new rules were discussed. This is not uncommon, and slight additions and rewording of rules have been quietly added to the rulebook in years past. This new clause stems from a Week 14 game last season between the Colts and Bills in Buffalo, where heavy snow forced two missed field goals during the game. During a timeout, the Colts sideline attendants began reflexively helping players clear a spot for an extra-point kick. Referee Brad Allen chased them off the field and warned the bench to refrain from doing so, as it was a violation of the rarely seen snow-clearing policies.
The snow-clearing policies are in the gameday operations manual, since it largely applied to grounds crews. (It also includes when and where they do authorized line clearing.) Since the provision wasn’t in the rulebook, Allen had to warn the sideline before assessing any penalties. Now, if non-player personnel attempt to clear snow off the field on a kick play, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty will be enforced without any warnings, which is the only practical difference between 2017 and 2018.
A day prior to the Colts-Bills game, a similar occurrence took place at the annual Army-Navy game in snowy Philadelphia. It was legal, and currently remains legal, in college football.
Famously, on Dec. 12, 1982, Mark Henderson — a convict on work-release working for the Patriots’ grounds crew — drove a John Deere snowplow onto the field at the request of New England head coach Ron Meyer to help clear a path for Patriots’ kicker John Smith to kick a game-winning field goal to defeat the Miami Dolphins in the waning minutes. Dolphins’ head coach Don Shula vehemently protested this act as the field goal was good, but referee Bob Frederic allowed the field goal, and the Patriots won the game, 3-0. The snow-clearing policies were instituted when Shula proposed it in the ensuing offseason. Under the 2018 rule, Henderson’s act would have cost New England 15 yards — especially since it was done at the behest of the coach — and made a 33-yard field goal a more intense 48-yard field goal.
A common practice where kicking team players (and limited to the 11 who are on the field) gather together to clear a space for the kicker to boot a field goal with their shoes is still legal. This rule just prohibits non-players from assisting the kicker in this way. Even though there aren’t many games in driving snowstorms that occur in an NFL season, this new, quietly added rule will take a way a bit of potential homefield advantage. Additionally, Shula may now finally have some closure.