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2023 rule changes

Owners opt to tweak the rules and leave major changes on the cutting-room floor

There were a few radical changes proposed, but all but the seemingly innocuous ones were rejected. Even the Competition Committee, which has a high rate of approval with their proposals, saw some of their ideas turned down.



Owners were presented with 9 rules proposals from teams and 8 from the Competition Committee, in addition to revisions to the league’s bylaws and policy documents.

There were a few radical changes proposed, but all but the seemingly innocuous ones were rejected. Even the Competition Committee, which has a high rate of approval with their proposals, saw some of their ideas turned down.

Here is a review of the rules that passed and those that did not with the proposal number shown and the team that submitted the proposal (or CC for Competition Commitee).

New rules passed by owners

1. We’re number 0 (PHI)

Proposal number 1 was to propose a number 0. The Eagles were looking to return 0 to the pool of numbers available for players.

The numbers 0 and 00 were officially removed from circulation in 1973, with existing zeros allowed at the time. From 1952 to 1972, the rulebook specified number ranges which excluded zeroes for offensive players — although, offensive players were able to get an exception from the commissioner. Defensive players could choose any number, a vestigial rule from the days when players would be on offense and defense, with the offensive position necessitating a specific number.

The new rule also expands the entire offensive range of 0-49 and 80-99 for punters and kickers, who were previously restricted to positive integers below 20.

In perhaps the quickest turnaround in implementing any new rule, wide receiver Calvin Ridley claimed the first 0 within minutes, having been acquired in a trade by the Jaguars during Ridley’s 2022 suspension.

3 & 7. Replay changes (LAC, HOU)

Typically, when there are more than a few proposals in any given year, many focus on replay revisions.

The Chargers would like to see the play clock reset to 40 after a replay stoppage, which can help the offense kill time had there not been a replay. This will make for an odd restart in many situations, because a 40-second play clock with the game clock stopped could be utilized by the offense to try to draw the defense offside with a prolonged time in formation. The rule change does this for all reviews, even outside of the 2-minute warning when time is less critical. An unusual provision would have any 10-second runoff start the play clock at 30, a restart number that the NFL hasn’t seen since 1989.

The Texans proposed to have a turnover on downs subject to a booth review, just the same as a turnover by an interception, fumble, or muffed kick, which also passed

10. Redefine launching (CC)

The owners agreed to redefine launching, which previously required a springing action from two feet, to only require one foot to be called a foul. Launching can be used on a hit on a defenseless player when it is a forcible blow to the head or neck area and delivered to a player in one of the 11 defined defenseless postures (most commonly a receiver in the catch process). Launching may also be called on a crackback block — in this case, commonly when a motion man is travelling toward the area where the snap occurred and delivers a forcible head blow to the opponent.

This rule change was the endorsed by the Competition Committee and the Health and Safety Advisory Committee.

11. Fifteen for tripping (CC)

The Competition Committee was also successful in raising the penalty on tripping from a 10-yarder to a 15. Tripping has typically been seen as analogous to a takedown via defensive holding. Essentially, a trip occurs when a player cannot make a play on an opponent and resorts to this desperation move. It does cause injuries, and so the committee is considering this to be unnecessary roughness.

Trips are difficult to see. Officials’ eyes are not trained on players’ feet, the maneuver is typically done stealthily, and many times trips occur in traffic where there isn’t a clear view of the foul. If it is moved into the 15-yard category, there will likely be an increase in tripping fouls called. By moving it up into the player-safety major penalty bracket, the standard is “err on the side of safety.” If a player suddenly hits the deck, and the official is unsure if it was an illegal trip or incidental tangled feet, the official will flag it.

Because it moved into a 15-yard penalty, deliberate tripping will be subject to a fine, just the same as any other 15-yarder. While tripping fouls are not reviewable in the game, the disciplinary wing of the league office can make a judgment call to not assess a fine if it is deemed to be incidental. Similarly, they can add a fine for an infraction that was not flagged.

12-14. Other penalty enforcement fixes (both CC)

A few tweaks to the rules were approved to achieve some consistency in penalty enforcement

A forward handoff is only allowed to be made to an eligible receiver behind the line of scrimmage. When the handoff occurs downfield, it is 5 yards from the spot of the foul and a loss of down. The rule change would be to have forward handoffs to linemen behind the line of scrimmage also carry a loss of down and also be a spot foul (currently from the line of scrimmage). While illegal forward handoffs generally mirror the penalties for illegally touching a pass, this change would create a different enforcement for the illegal forward handoff behind the line.

Illegal forward passes beyond the line of scrimmage (or after the ball crosses back behind the line) are a 5-yard penalty and a loss of down. The committee proposes that illegal kicks in those same situations would lower from 10 yards to 5 and be a loss of down for consistency. This is not to include illegally kicking a loose ball. If a punt is beyond the line, it is an illegal kick, but if a punter drops the ball and then kicks the rolling ball, it’s an illegally kicked ball (and still 10 yards) but not an illegal kick.

There was a small loophole in the rules extending the half, and the Competition Committee closed it. The existing rule was if both teams have dead-ball fouls, the half is over, just the same as if there is a single defensive dead-ball foul. But if the offense’s foul is a live-ball foul, it pulled the defense’s dead-ball foul to combine as a live-ball fouls, allowing the half to be extended by an untimed down. Basically, the timing of the offense’s foul is created the advantage for the offense, and in this case the new rule allows the normal enforcement provisions apply, just that an extension of the half is not available.

If the defense commits a live-ball foul, either alone or combined with an offensive foul, the half can be extended (although there are other exceptions that have been on the books to address other quirks).

17. Use of helmet clarifications

In mostly a bookkeeping move, the language that prohibits a player to “ram, butt, or spear” an opponent is consolidated under the use-of-the-helmet foul. What is added is that a facemask or helmet may contact the opponent legally with the helmet or facemask in the form of a conventional block or tackle. In other words, there is clear “incidental contact” language written in, so in a case where the initial contact is legally to the body, followed by helmets contacting because of the lurch of the tackle, this is clearly not a foul.

Bylaws and resolutions passed

There were a few additional proposals that do not affect the rulebook, and the following were passed:

The Bills proposal that roster transaction deadlines in the postseason match the regular season was passed. The Chargers were looking for greater transparency in injury reporting for players returning from a reserve list, citing “legalization of sports betting” as one of the reasons in a paragraph I assume was plagiarized from Pro Football Talk. Basically, the practice designations would apply for players coming off a reserve list.

One proposal by the Saints was a guarantee to pass: to have a single mass preseason roster cutdown from 90 players to 53 on the Tuesday after the preseason ends. There were 24 other teams that co-signed the proposal, which was more than enough votes as long as there weren’t faithless electors. (24 affirmative votes needed to pass.) The teams that did not endorse the proposal are the Cardinals, Bengals, Dolphins, Patriots, Giants, Steelers, and 49ers.

The Competition Committee adjusted the claiming period to Monday for players waived Friday-Saturday in Week 18 and adjusted the roster freeze date at the end of the season. They also added a tiebreaker that determines priority if more than one team claims a player waived during the season. After Week 3 games, the waiver priority is the W-L record, followed by strength of schedule, and a new second tiebreaker of strength of victory. Further ties are a random draw by the commissioner, which was more likely for early-season waiver claims.

Rules that did not pass

2. Onside scrimmage alternative (PHI)

The Eagles also proposed to allow an onside scrimmage play in place of an onside kick. The team that uses this alternative must be trailing in the score, and it cannot be used more than twice in a game.

This proposal would have given the option to convert that onside kick opportunity to a 4th & 20 play from the 20-yard line. Quite simply, there is one down to make the first down, including by an automatic first down by penalty. Any penalties that carry over to the kickoff would be assessed before setting the line-to-gain for the onside scrimmage.

If the offense (“kicking” team) is assessed a penalty, they may not revert back to a standard kickoff. Punts and field goal attempts are off the table as well.

This was attempted in a few Pro Bowls with different distances and proposed by the Broncos in 2019 and the Eagles in 2020 and 2021, each time being tabled for further discussion. As in previous years, the measure was not voted down, but tabled for future discussion. Unlike other proposals that were tabled this year, it is not expected to come to a vote at the spring meeting in May (although it is possible).

4-6, 8. Replay changes rejected (DET, DET, DET, LAR)

The Lions threw in three rules proposals for replay. First was to have called personal fouls challengeable by the coach, which they withdrew from consideration prior to a vote. The Lions also proposed a perennial proposal from many teams to award a third challenge if either of the first two are successful. (The rule continues that both have to be successful for a third challenge.) Finally, the Lions were looking to make zone-type penalties reviewable: offensive pass interference for contact more than 1 yard beyond the line, ineligible players downfield more than a yard, and defenders chucking receivers beyond the 5-yard zone. Essentially, any foul that relies on a player to be in or out of a yard-specific zone would be reviewable as to whether the foul occurred in or out of the zone. It does not apply to zones such as the tackle box or the tight-end box which are bounded by imaginary lines, nor does it allow replay to put a flag down if no foul is called. The latter two proposals did not pass, and it’s not clear if they had failed or were withdrawn from consideration.

The Rams proposed to have roughing the passer fouls can be overturned by a replay assist (a quick review by the replay official before the play clock reaches 20) or by a coach’s challenge. This would have only applied to pick up a flag, not to put one down. The window for this type of a review seemed incredibly narrow, in that only an “objective element” of roughing the passer can be reviewed. Basically, this would have been a situation where the referee has flagged for contact to the head, for instance, and replay shows that there was no contact. All other criteria would be subjective (landing with full body weight, whether a defender braced himself, etc.) and outside of the scope of this proposed rule. This was voted down by owners.

9. Expand the crackback definition (NYJ)

The Jets proposed that one of the definitions of a crackback block be expanded for the receiver in motion. Basically, there is a list of prohibited contact (low blocks, forcible contact to the head, etc.) when the motion man is travelling toward the location of the snap and delivering the block. Once the receiver goes beyond the spot where the snap occurred, there is no crackback block. The Jets were looking to make that illegal, in what they call a “split-flow block.”

14. Punt touchbacks to the 25 (CC)

Since the kickoff moved the touchback line to the 25, it has reduced the dangers of the kickoff play. Punts are now, according to Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay, the most dangerous play. The committee is proposing moving the punt touchback line to the 25 as well.

So, how does this help? If a team has 4th down at midfield, they may be inclined to go for the first down rather than punting for a potential net of 25. Fewer punts would mean a reduction in injuries.

There are many more things that need to be implemented to make punts safer — all of which are being examined because of their impact on punting downs. This would have been a small measure, and because it was being presented as a player-safety rule, it seemed likely to pass. Owners voted this proposal down.

16. Kickoff touchback zone (CC)

Fair catches are rarely called for on kickoffs, but this proposal would have changed that. The Competition Committee proposed that the NFL adopt the college rule that allows for a fair catch inside the 25 to be a touchback to the 25.

It effectively takes the “mortar kick” tactic of a kicker attempting to reach the field of play short of the end zone, drawing the receiver into a kick return.

A receiver must be alert to call for a fair catch if a teammate also does, otherwise the play is over at the spot of the catch. Currently, the NFL does not have a fair-catch signal as a reviewable element, but with if this proposal passes in the future, maybe it should.

Owners tabled this proposal to the May spring meeting, and it is possible it is passed at that time.

Bylaws proposals and resolutions that did not pass

The Lions — and not the 49ers, who ran into a problem in the NFC Championship Game — proposed a rule that allows an inactive third quarterback to be dressed for the game. Similar to the previous rule that existed, the third quarterback does not count against the active-player limit (46) on gameday. This rule would require the other two quarterbacks to be ruled out, either by injury or ejection. (The last quarterback ejected was Trent Dilfer, 1995.) There are also provisions (mostly salary-related) for using a practice squad players in this way. Owners voted to table the measure for the spring meeting in May, perhaps to further examine the business implications of the active-not-active player.

The Chargers, a wild-card team that played on the road against the AFC South champion Jaguars, proposed that a wild-card team should be able to climb up to a number 4 seed. It would have only applied if the division winner was below .500 and there is a 4-win differential with any wild card team, which could have opened things up for a second wild-card team to move up, even though that second team might not have the 4-win edge. In 2022, the 12-5 Dallas Cowboys would have shanked 4 extra points at home, rather than in Tampa, playing the 8-9 Buccaneers. The owners did not pass this proposal.

Finally, the Eagles had an unusual proposal that would require the game clock to count down by tenths of a second inside of 30 seconds in the second and fourth quarters. There are reasons for having tenths in basketball and hockey, but neither really apply to football, especially that the expiration of the period does not stop a play in progress. It also would have made it difficult for a line official to develop a countdown rhythm to the expiration of the clock vs. the snap; a situation that would not apply in the seconds leading into the 2-minute warning. The expiration of the half is reviewable only if there is a 2-second differential, which would have rendered such precision meaningless, and would have changed the mechanics as well. Current NFL game clocks display 1 second for 0.1 to 1.0 seconds, and 2 seconds for 1.1 to 2.0 seconds; this would have caused what was reviewable at 1.9 to no longer be allowed. The rule that a field goal attempt will take a maximum of 5 seconds (unless it lands in the field of play) would have also required a clock adjustment on nearly every late-half field goal.

In the college football, Rule 3-2-4 is unambiguous on the issue:

The game clock shall not display tenths of seconds.

In short, it was a solution in search of a problem, and while owners didn’t outright reject it, they tabled the proposal. It is not likely to be discussed at the spring meeting.

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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