The season really begins in earnest for us at Football Zebras when the rulebook is published. Every year, there are changes to the rules that are beyond what the owners approve at their annual meeting (and sometimes at the spring meeting). These “editorial changes” can range from punctuation marks to improved phrasing. It sometimes introduces a new interpretation or a can almost be a new rule onto itself.
Today the NFL released its rulebook, and the ritual continued. Additions are typically indicated in red text and deletions that don’t impact the surrounding text may be unnoticed. We discovered an unmarked addition when we ran an automated document compare.
Here’s the 2023 rule on the penalty for intentional grounding in the end zone:
a safety if the passer’s entire body and the ball are in his end zone when the ball is thrown2023 rulebook
And in 2022:
if the passer is in his end zone when the ball is thrown, it is a safety2022 rulebook
This is Rule 8-2-1 for those of you who are highlighting their rulebooks next to their football-watching chair.
This was a rule that was not asking for refinement, and, in fact, it creates a few inconsistencies. The root of the 2023 interpretation is to determine the spot of the passer and not the pass as was the case previously — even though the prior wording referred to the passer. (This wording was introduced in the 1978 rulebook when the safety penalty was added to the grounding rule.) Intentional grounding is not reviewable, but the spot at which a foul occurs is, so the replay official can jump in with a replay assist to refine the spot of an intentional grounding. Replay can also review the safety/no safety aspect, but still cannot pick up or put down a flag for intentional grounding.
In previous seasons, the replay official would determine where the ball was released to establish a foul spot. If the ball was breaking the plane of the goal when the pass was released, and a flag is thrown for intentional grounding, then replay would uphold (or reverse to) a safety call.
The new interpretation would treat the goal line the same as how the line of scrimmage is considered for an illegal forward pass, but philosophically these lines should have different properties. As long as the passer is on the line of scrimmage, he is not downfield, and can legally pass the ball. (Bears fans are advised not to click that link.) It does not act as a plane in the same way that the goal line and the line to gain do.
The new interpretation is inconsistent in two ways. First, the rule of a safety by tackling the ball carrier has not changed. It is a safety if the entire ball has not exited the end zone when the ball is dead; essentially, touchdowns and safeties both score when the ball is breaking the plane of the goal. But an intentionally grounded pass could be released nearly 2 yards deep in the end zone if a falling passer merely has a toe touching in the field of play. Neither the rulebook nor the two casebooks specify where to spot the ball in this conundrum, but consistent with other rules for a goal-plane-breaking ball that’s not deemed in the end zone (for instance, when a kicking team player touches a punt in the air over the end zone) the offense could get the ball on the 1 after a loss of down.
The second inconsistency is how it aligns with other fouls in the end zone. This extra verbiage has not been attached to the rule for an illegal forward pass, and without a specific instruction, the spot of the pass would be the determining factor for a safety. In fact all* other penalties result in a safety, “when the offense commits a foul behind its own goal line,” according to Rule 11-5-1(a), but a grounding foul can be initiated behind the goal line and not be a safety.
(The asterisk is to note that an exception is made under new provision in the rules. There is unusual option now available to the defense to enforce penalties as they normally would without triggering a safety, except when it would cause the ball to be spotted in the end zone. Essentially, the defense can “decline” the safety by penalty unless it is impossible to do so.)
Take this play from last season where Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner pressures Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who throws the ball away.
Gardner doesn’t get the sack, but the Jets get the safety by penalty because the pass originated in the end zone, judged by the spot the ball is released. However, if Bridgewater is just slightly forward, releasing the ball in the end zone but barely touching the field of play, it is not a safety under the new interpretation.
Other editorial modifications to the rules
There are a few additional editorial changes that were spotted in our examination of the 2023 rulebook, including two controversies that Football Zebras broke the news on last year.
The rules now address the controversy over a holder elevating a kickoff ball on a high side of the tee:
During a placekick on a kickoff, the kicking team may use a manufactured tee designed to hold the ball no more than one inch from the ground and approved by the League. A holder or tee cannot be used to elevate the ball more than one inch above the ground.rule 6-1-1, underlined portion added
The controversy we reported regarding the use markers, painted grass, or other foreign objects to assist the spotting of field goal and extra-point kicks now has specific information:
No article of any type may be placed on the field, or used in any manner, to assist a player in the execution of a field goal and/or Try attempt. Nothing other than a hand or finger may be used to mark the spot or the vicinity of a kick or hold.Rule 11-4-6, underlined portion added
We do note that there was no change to the rules where a celebrating player removes his helmet on the end line and is not penalized, but if he’s in the end zone, it is. In this case we did note an enforcement inconsistency over time, and the league’s explanation just made it worse.
- The rules removed the “Milwaukee bench rule” that provides for ground rules in case benches have to be placed on the same sideline. When the Packers played games in Milwaukee County Stadium (last time in 1994), the layout required benches to be on the same side of the field.
- Kickers and punters remained restricted to low numbers (1-19) when the jersey numbering landrush opened in 2019. Now, they are included in the ranges available to any eligible receiver and may also wear a 0.
- A previously unwritten, but universally understood, interpretation applies the line-of-scrimmage rule described above for determining if a passer is beyond the line to punters as well. This omission was noted in a legal (and still legal) 2021 double punt by Seahawks punter Michael Dickson .
- Forcibly pulling players off a pile was moved from the unsportsmanlike conduct to the unnecessary roughness category.
- Terminology updates: The use of ball boys/girls was revised to ball crew. The tackle box was folded into the existing definition of the pocket area, and a T-formation Quarterback is defined as a quarterback who lines up under center and isn’t more than 1 yard in the backfield.
- Kicking balls will be preprinted with the number 1-6 by the manufacturer and not numbered by the officiating crew. Not specified in the rules, but in the K-ball coordinator’s mechanics documents, the visiting team will use the odd numbers and the home team gets the even numbers. The lowest number is used by each team until one has been removed from circulation (in the stands, trophy ball, or if there is an issue or defect with a ball) or to swap in a dry ball.
- The officiating crew will be supplied with a “League-approved inflation measurement device” for every game.
- Someone pedantic over grammar removed hundreds of hyphens from phrases like dead-ball spot and double-team block (but not horse-collar tackle) causing our document compare to light up significant numbers of revisions. Certain terms that were initial capped to indicate they had defined meanings and not generic, like Double Foul and Basic Spot, have been lowercased.