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2020 Rule Changes

Odds are that team rules proposals are paper shredder food

Seven rule proposals were floated by NFL teams, which for the most part don’t have a chance of passing



2020 rules proposals

The NFL released the first tranche of modified rules proposals with 7 team-submitted recommendations from the Eagles, Dolphins, Ravens, and Chargers.

Typically, the team-backed proposals are dead on arrival; only 4 of the 44 team proposals passed in the last 5 years, plus 2 others that were absorbed into a larger rule by the Competition Committee that passed. (Those two are up for a re-vote this year.) If the Competition Committee declines to back a team proposal, it is up to the team to present and defend the potential rule to the ownership. Not having the Competition Committee back a proposal already weakens a team’s stance, which is why so many tend to fail.

The Competition Committee takes ownership of any team proposal it favors, and will tweak those rules before a final proposal. None of the proposals released here were picked up by the Competition Committee, which will announce their proposals in two weeks according to a source, prior to the March 29–April 1 meetings.

1. Putting “blind” back in blindside blocks (PHI)

The expansion of the blindside block foul last year was deliberately broad, even though it left many fans screaming at officials for flags that were actually fouls. Essentially a blocker attacking against the typical grain of the play with him moving parallel to or towards his goal line is engaging in a blindside block. The illegal ones included forcible contact (not severe, but forcible) with the helmet, forearm, or shoulder. Hits using the body or hands were not an illegal blindside even if the blocker was traveling in the direction of a blindside.

The Eagles want to roll the rule back to exclude blocks that a defender would have seen, or as written, it would be illegal to throw a blindside block against a player “who cannot reasonably expect such contact” but only with the forearm or shoulder. They did reserve contact to a defender’s helmet in the defenseless player rules, but the Eagles proposal opens the door to forcible contact with the helmet as long as the blocker does not lower his head. That is a huge modification to a player-safety aspect, and unless the owners amend the proposal to leave the helmet restrictions as they are, this rule will not make it. 👎 

2. Booth review on all conversions and nullified scores and turnovers (PHI)

The two proposals that have to be re-voted, as previously mentioned, involved replay modifications that were amended to the pass-interference review vote, which then made them single-year proposals. This proposal would make these 2 provisions permanent and separate from the discussions of pass interference.

The rule made all nullified scores and turnovers subject to a booth review, as was proposed by the Eagles last year. This allows a coach to make a decision to decline a foul after a reversal of the play. Previously, the coach would have to challenge, which gave an advantage to the team committing the foul.

The second replay aspect, originally proposed by the Broncos in 2019, closes the conversion-down loophole in replay. The coach had to challenge an unsuccessful conversion try, but one that scored was a booth review. This also created a weird paradox where it was a booth review on failed attempts if there was a turnover during the extra-point attempt (when possession at the end of the down doesn’t matter) or if it was under 2 minutes in the half (when the clock doesn’t run on a conversion attempt).

This is just a technical matter of two provisions that were on the books in 2019, and will be accepted fairly quickly. 👍

3. Onside scrimmage alternative (PHI)

This was originally proposed by the Broncos last year and cosigned by the Competition Committee later in the process. It essentially provides for a 4th & 15–type play as an alternative to an onside kick. Seeing how the success rate on onside kicks plummeted with the kickoff formation restrictions, this provided an option to go on offense for one 15-yard play to keep the ball. The proposal was tabled last year, only to show up as an option in the Pro Bowl, which was perhaps the poorest trial run of anything on television since the pilot episode of Top of the Heap.

The Pro Bowl version (and the Eagles proposal) moved the snap back to the 25 from the kickoff at the 35, to align closer with the recovery spot of an onside kick. Additionally, the Eagles did not limit the play to one opportunity in the fourth quarter, as was proposed by the Broncos last year and applied in the Pro Bowl.

A late amendment to the proposal would prohibit this alternative to be attempted in overtime and it would be run as an untimed down.

It has a lot of promise, but I think the owners need to see more trials before approving such a drastic change. The Competition Committee opted not to pick this one up, which speaks volumes. Not this year, I think. 👎

4. Restore the 15-minute overtime and a stat-line coin toss substitute (PHI)

The Eagles are also pushing to return to the 15-minute overtime period in the regular season (and preseason), which makes sense, but there is little clamor from the league to reverse the 10-minute overtime. The proposed rule also reverts the touchback on the kickoff to the 20-yard line, which doesn’t make sense to keep adding new rules specific for overtime.

Added to the proposal is a way to reduce the number of overtime coin flips by using the total number of touchdowns scored in lieu of a toss. Since the score is tied, it is most likely that the number of touchdowns is as well. (The proposal returns to the coin toss if touchdowns are equalized.) This makes no sense, as it would punish the team that scored more often nearly every time. Scored 5 field goals? Sorry, your opponent got there with a 7 and an 8 the hard way, so you’re kicking off in overtime.

This is just silly, and if we could keep the 15-minute rule, add a provision that the team that was last in the lead gets the options for the overtime kickoff, then we can return to a true sudden-death overtime. But this proposal from Philadelphia should be tied to a brick and thrown into the Schuylkill River. 🙄

5. Run the clock on a late-game offensive foul (MIA)

[This section was rewritten, as it does not apply to the clock-draining tactic used in the 2019 season.]

The proposal by the Dolphins allows the defense to elect whether to have the clock run on the snap after it declines an offensive penalty near the end of the half.

The Dolphins are trying to address the fact that the offense actually gets an advantage for a live-ball foul inside the 2-minute warning of the first half and with 5 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. In those cases, the game clock would start on the snap following any accepted or declined foul. The change would have the clock start on the ready-for-play signal if the defense declines the penalty.

Not sure this is really an issue, but apparently the Dolphins felt they were “wronged” by this in the past. Since it’s such a seemingly non-issue, I’m not sure there is a real need for this rule. 🤷‍♂️

6. & 7. Move over SkyJudge, we have Booth Umpires and STARs (BAL-LAC)

The Competition Committee unanimously rejected the SkyJudge model last year, despite coaches unanimously approving an unofficial proposal to have a SkyJudge. (Two coaches voted in both.) While it made sense for the Alliance of American Football, where there were college officials working a pro game that had Byzantine formation restrictions, it does not yet have a model for consistent application in the NFL. This includes the recasting of the role in the replay official in the XFL. Only intervene in egregious situations? There’s no way to fairly apply such a subjective standard at the pro level. Intervene whenever they see something? This was the problem with the first generation of replay from 1986 to 1991, and now such intervention could interfere with the fair application of the coach’s challenge process.

The Ravens and Chargers have two joint proposals. The first have a “booth umpire” as an eighth official without any detail of responsibilities. Just look at everything? The wording also seems to suggest a booth umpire could come onto the field as an alternate official. The lack of substance is the fatal flaw in this proposal. 🤮

The second Balto-Bolts joint rolls the responsibility of this extra helper into a bug in the referee’s ear. The STAR official (or the — seriously, do I have to do this? — Senior Technology Advisor to the Referee) sounds like the person in charge of explaining how to avoid phishing scams at an active adult planned development. The STAR doesn’t make calls, but nags the referee through the wireless headset to make or change a call. The STAR takes some of the replay responsibilities mixed with other nebulous items and ending with a phone-a-friend option. As listed in the rule, the STAR will advise the crew on matters of: 

  1. game administration
  2. possession
  3. touching of a loose ball, boundary line, goal line, or end line
  4. the location of the football relative to the boundary line, line of scrimmage, line to gain, or goal line
  5. down by contact (when the player is not ruled down by contact on the field)
  6. fouls for facemask and unnecessary roughness against a defenseless player
  7. number of players on the field at the snap
  8. any other information requested by the Referee

The STAR is “an officiating expert who has on-field experience as a game official,” which would be either a retired official or one whose crew is off that week. This would technically be nothing new. It has been an open secret that the league gameday command center can parachute in to the wireless headsets, sometimes exacerbating a situation that takes time to sort out. But such interventions are rarely conducted in the regular season, and are more apt to happen in the postseason to fine-tune a foul spot or to make a common-sense adjustment to an obvious touchback situation. 

But I can’t even get past the name of this position to even consider this seriously. 🤦‍♂️

Worse, since there are two proposals, it is actually possible to have booth a booth umpire and a STAR approved.

These will also be swiftly disposed of, since the officiating leadership apparatus is being completely rearranged with the appointment of Walt Anderson as senior vice president of officiating development. Anderson would report up to Football Operations, not laterally to SVP/officiating Al Riveron, and there’s no clear indication how exactly this will settle. Owners will not pass any rules proposal that interferes with the reorganization effort underway.

Oddly, Washington does not have a proposal on the table this year, but seeing as they have an 0-11 record at the last 5 owners meetings, they decided to sit this one out, rather than propose the double forward pass.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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