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2013 rule changes will challenge officials



The NFL has announced the 2013 rule changes.  In most years, the rule changes are easy for the officials to adapt to and does not give extra headaches to the men in stripes.  All but one of the 2013 rule changes seem fairly benign.  Officiating-wise, I would say two rule changes are welcome, but one rule change will significantly impact the way the game is played and officiated.

First of all, I would assert that the officials are happy that the tuck rule is gone and are glad that that the competition committee changed the “red flag rule” .  The tuck rule was never popular (outside of New England!) and it was a difficult call to make.  The red flag rule change corrected an unintended consequence.  The coach will still pay a penalty for not knowing the rules, but unlike last year, the play will be reviewed.  Officials always want to get the call right and the 2013 change will allow a proper instant replay review.

The real challenge for the officials in the coming season will be to accurately call the crown of the helmet rule.  Starting this season, a  runner in the open field cannot  lower his head and initiate contact with a defender with the crown (top) of his helmet.  This rule applies to all ball carriers – not just running backs.  This will alter the way players play the game and a play that officials have ruled legal for their entire careers is now a penalty. 

NFL vice president for officiating, Dean Blandino, says he does not expect the new rule to be more difficult to enforce than any of the other player safety rules (video).  “The way we are going to teach it is that we are looking for the player that squares up the opponent, lowers the head, the delivers the blow with the very top crown of the helmet,” Blandino adds. 

Senior director of officiating, Alberto Riveron, explains how he wants the officials to make the call,

One of the things we will look at when we have a play like that is that we will have three sets of eyes looking at it.  We will have three different angles: one from the front, one from the rear and, hopefully, at least one from the side.  We are going to encourage our officials when this foul is thrown on the field to have a conference and make sure we have seen what we actually saw.  We are going to encourage our officials to slow down when they have this kind of play and…make sure they have the components of the foul: squaring up, head down, and contact with the crown of the helmet.

NFL coaches spoke against this rule before the owners voted to pass it.  The media and many fans are skeptical of this rule.  Some say that Walter Payton’s highlight reel runs would be flagged under this new rule (video).  I think there will be some short-term growing pains as officials learn the new rule and apply it on the field.  If the teams and fans are patient, by the middle of the season the players and officials will most likely be on the same page.  I am glad that Blandino and Riveron plan on educating the officials on this new rule and will encourage the officials to conference together before reporting the foul to the referee.

It will be very interesting to see these new rules applied starting with the Hall of Fame game in a little over four months.


Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"