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2016 rule changes

Language revisions update rulebook beyond owner-approved changes

Many small changes or simple clarifications are added to existing rules by the football operations division outside of the ownership-approval process



2016 rule changes

Every season there are several rule changes approved by the owners. In addition, many small changes or simple clarifications are also added to existing rules by the football operations division with the officiating department within it. These so-called language changes are not to circumvent the ownership-approval process, but are, in many cases, official interpretations or extensions of existing rules.

The changes made include:

Timeouts stand if inadvertently granted to an assistant. Generally, timeouts are only granted when requested by the head coach or an on-field player. However, when the snap is imminent the officials must be entirely focused toward the field, and they can’t always verify that it is actually the head coach behind them asking for a timeout. This has lead to timeouts being granted when the head coach did not ask for or necessarily even want a stop, perhaps most notably in a 2014 game between the Jets and Packers when New York’s Sheldon Richardson called a timeout that wiped out a touchdown play. The rule change clarifies that a timeout in a similar situation will stand when granted by the officials. This is likely a change borne out of the delay-of-game penalty for using too many timeouts.

Ball supply. The previously optional, but largely used, provision of both teams providing 12 primary and 12 backup balls is now required. This is a result of the new ball-handling procedures put in place last season. Previously, it was optional for the visiting team to provide backup balls. Additionally, the balls must be delivered to the officials no later than 2½ hours before kickoff.

Delay of game for intentionally contacting the ball. If a player intentionally hits the ball to prevent a snap or the officials signaling the ready-for-play, it will be a 5-yard delay of game penalty. 

Defenses can’t decline a replay runoff. If it is the last minute of the half or game, and a replay review overturns a call and changes the status of the clock from a dead clock to running clock, there is a 10-second runoff to reflect the clock that would have been running. This rule change clarifies that the defense may not decline the runoff, but either team can use a timeout to prevent time being taken off the clock. The defense may still decline runoffs that are attached to offensive penalties and injury timeouts. Either team make take a timeout to offset a replay runoff.

Field goals take a maximum of 5 seconds. Previously there was an unwritten rule that field-goal attempts took exactly five seconds off the clock. Because it was unwritten, it was unevenly administered. When the ball touches an out-of-bounds object in flight, the clock is stopped, but for long field-goal attempts this will be capped at 5 seconds. For missed field goals that remain in the field of play, the clock will continue to wind until the ball is declared dead. 

Huddles outside the numbers. Whenever the offense makes substitutions during play, the defense always gets an opportunity to make their own subs to match up. This rule makes sure the offense can’t get an unfair personnel advantage coming out of a timeout. The language clarification states that the match-up provision extends to huddles coming out of a timeout that are on the bench-side of the field numbers.

Short kickoff is not rekicked. If a free kick does not go the required ten yards (for example, an onside kick attempt), and the ball becomes dead in the field of play without being touched or possessed, the ball will belong to the receiving team at the dead ball spot with the penalty assessed. Previously, it was ambiguous, and based on the context, could have resulted in a rekick.

Intentional grounding clarified. Intentional grounding is not called when the ball is “in the vicinity of the receiver.” The added wording clarifies that the ball must land in the vicinity of an eligible receiver in order to not be called for intentional grounding. This was somewhat related to a rule proposal by the Panthers that was voted down, although the requirement for “realistic chance of completion” remains in the rule.

Bench restrictions. The only time the head coach can leave the bench are to engage an official are to call a timeout or challenge a play. The coach will be subject to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if they go on the field to argue a call. This is a point of emphasis in 2016, but to support the emphasis, new stipulations were added. A coach is allowed on the field to check on the welfare of a player, and allowed outside of the bench area to call timeout or issue a challenge, when the ball inside either teams’ 32-yard line (the outer limits of the bench area).

Hoods and layers must not stick out of the uniform. Last season players, such as then-Packers receiver James Jones, opted to wear hooded sweatshirts under their pads. The NFL has now expanded the uniform policy to state that such clothing needs to be entirely under the uniform. 

Defensive players on the line, defined. A more detailed definition for a player on the line of scrimmage. A defensive player is deemed to be on the line if he is within a yard of the neutral zone (3- and 4-point stances) or if a part of his body breaks the vertical plane from where the feet of the deepest down lineman are located.

If it doesn’t flip. The coin toss that didn’t flip in the Divisional Playoffs last year was correctly handled by voiding the toss and retossing. This is now codified in the rulebook with clarity that the defense doesn’t select heads/tails again. You will never see this provision again, even if you live to 150.

Process of the catch. While there is some new verbiage in the rules, explaining the completion of the final step in the catch process, it is really going to be officiated the same as it always has been.


Additionally, there were three proposals that the owners approved that were minor fixes (and didn’t necessitate a separate post here):

Point-after-touchdown rule permanent. The revision to the point-after-touchdown conversion was passed as a 1-year rule in 2015. The owners voted in favor of making the rule permanent. No other changes were made in this area.

Coach communication may come from the coaches’ booth. In the past, the coach who was in radio communication with the on-field signal caller had to be on the sideline. This rule grants the coaches more flexibility as the coordinators can be in the booth as well as on the sideline to take advantage of the coach-to-player communication system. As usual, the helmet radios are automatically shut off by a league employee when the play clock winds down or a snap occurs, and re-engaged once the play is over.

Horse-collar tackle area expanded. This was also a change passed by the owners, which was proposed by the Competition Committee. As a reaction to tackles that avoid the collar region defined for a horse-collar tackle, and are still just as dangerous, the area has been expanded to include the nameplate area on the back of the jersey. The pull-down area includes the previously defined area of a semicircle from shoulder to shoulder along the collar line and the tops of the shoulder pads. It still remains an illegal tackle maneuver for an open-field runner and does not apply to a runner or quarterback in the pocket area.


One additional “ground rule” regarding the ability to open a closed retractable roof at halftime was also a 1-year proposal from 2015. It was not renewed, and the final open-roof decision must be made 90 minutes prior to kickoff.

With all the rules changes, we are fortunate that players are not required to wear, as the Ravens proposed, practice pinnies when they enter the game out of position.

Patrick Weber is a four sport official working at the high school and college levels in football, baseball, basketball and soccer. He currently resides near Chicago, Illinois.

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