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NFL kicks off its first regular season without a rule change* since 1968. *There are changes you should know about.

For the first time in over 50 years, there are no new regular season rules changes. Well, sort of.



Could it be that the game of football could not be improved and the rulebook has reached a state of perfection?

While you try to continue to read through the tears of laughter, it is what the NFL’s Competition Committee has decided at least for this year by deferring any corrections in the NFL rulebook — sort of. There are smaller edits that are deemed to be “editorial changes” that do alter rules slightly or refine the spirit of a particular rule. These changes are not voted on by the NFL owners. The few items that were voted on made a 2021 kickoff formation rule change permanent and rule that revised postseason overtime to allow a guaranteed second possession (except in cases of a safety). The overtime rule does not apply until the tundra has been sufficiently frozen, so as the long offseason comes to an end, there are no new major rule changes, something that hasn’t happened since 1968.

The only alteration made to the 1968 rulebook was to incorporate the specific rules differences in the American Football League, as a unifed rulebook was used in preparation of the merger with the NFL.

Two years before that, the rulebook also went unchanged, except for a slight nonrules change that was noted inside the front cover, shown in the picture above. Because of a controversy in the preceding 1965 Western Division tiebreaker game, the height of the goalposts was raised. Field judge Jim Tunney was in the end zone to judge a game-tying field goal which appeared to have travelled over the top of the goal post — or outside, depending on who you ask. To reduce these over-the-top calls, Don Shula, then the coach of the Baltimore Colts, recommended the height increase from 10 to 20 feet above the crossbar, which quickly derived the nickname “Baltimore extensions.”

2022 editorial changes and points of emphasis

There are a few editorial changes to the rulebook that were not voted by the owners. Some are approaching major changes, but in most situations, they align with the spirit of the rule or clarify how the rule has been interpreted.

  • A new clarification is added regarding a passer who is hit prior to the start of the throwing motion and is able to pass the ball: “the direction of the pass is the responsibility of the passer … and intentional grounding rules apply.”
  • A pass that hits a penalty flag in the air results in a null play. The clock and the ball will be reset, and the down is replayed. (If there are 15-yard fouls, those will be enforced.) This aligns with the rule on overhead objects like cameras and scoreboards.
  • Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett will already have an effect on the rules before taking an NFL snap. While playing for the Pitt Panthers in the ACC Championship Game last year, Pickett scored a touchdown on a play where he initiated a slide to surrender his advance, only to fake the move and continue his run. Because defensive players avoid contact when a runner begins to slide, the faked slide gives an unfair disadvantage to the defense and is a potential safety issue. Therefore, a runner is deemed to be down if he fakes sliding.
  • Any illegal forward pass by the offense inside the 2-minute warning will be assessed a 10-second runoff penalty. Previously, this applied only to forward passes beyond the line of scrimmage. This now includes (1) double passes or (2) passes after the ball has crossed the line of scrimmage and returned behind it. The rule does not include illegal passes on kickoffs or following changes of possession.
  • The “use of the helmet” rule, which penalizes for lowering the helmet and making contact with opponent, will require a forcible contact element. Players who lower their helmet in an attempt to brace for or avoid contact are not committing an illegal act, although it is certainly poor form. A defender who lowers the head so that the helmet is the initiation of attack is still committing an illegal act. Officials are also told to watch linemen using a bull-rush technique, a dip of the head and thrust forward, similar to a bull using its horns.
  • If the play clock is frozen and restarted, it has been required that there should be a minimum of 10 seconds for the restart. This is now changed that the referee can exercise discretion and restart the play clock where it is. The casebook gives an example where a player drops to the ground with an apparent injury with 2:09 before the half and 4 seconds on the play clock. Restarting at 10 would then allow the offense to not run a play before the 2-minute warning.
  • Replay is allowed to review the number of players on the field at any time, and not just at the snap. New cameras were installed for replay purposes that do not rely on the television network, and the number of players can be monitored at all times.
  • A booth review is permitted when the kicking team possesses the ball on any kicking play. This only applied to muffed scrimmage kicks before, and now all successful onside kicks are automatic booth reviews.
  • A backward pass out of bounds was not explicitly listed as an act to illegally conserve time, but was a 10-second runoff. Now it is included as a 5-yard penalty even if there was an intended receiver of the backward pass, and even if a backward pass is muffed forward.

Additionally, there are some points of emphasis that officials will be focusing on this year:

Illegal contact will be emphasized this season, in communications that the officiating department has sent to the teams. For the offense, legal contact may be made no more than 1 yard downfield, and the defense is allowed 5 yards. This has always been interpreted that a full yard beyond is a foul, at 2 and 6 yards, respectively. The emphasis point is to avoid these zones sliding closer to 3 and 7.

Also, a pass defender or receiver cannot simply buy himself out of a pass interference foul by merely looking back at the ball. The player may legitimately make a play for the ball, and is entitled to a path to the ball, but he may not deliberately play through the opponent. Typically, looking back at the ball gives the impression that a player is making a play on the ball, but that will not be the sole determination to not throw a flag for pass interference.

So much for “no changes” to the rules this year!

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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