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2023 rule changes

Defenses can now decline a safety in some cases. Here’s how this could be a literal gamechanger.

Will a coach give back 2 for a chance at 6?

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It is a common sight on a botched snap to see a punter illegally kick a ball out of the end zone. The intentional foul is deemed to be a smart play: give up 2 points to save the potential touchdown.

An edit to the 2023 rulebook regarding penalties on safeties did not get very much attention, and in our analysis of the changes to intentional grounding, we mentioned it as an aside with no clear application. However, what was once a smart play could now boomerang into the defense’s favor under this rules revision. If an offensive penalty occurs in their end zone, the defense has the option to apply the penalty from the previous spot and nullify the safety.

Back to the hero punter who saves the touchdown. Let’s say it’s 4th & 5 from the 12-yard line. The errant snap has the ball rolling around in the end zone when the punter kicks the ball over the end line. This has always been a safety by virtue of the dead-ball spot and by the penalty in the end zone. However, the defense now has an additional option to enforce the penalty from the previous spot. Because it is a loss of down as well, the defense gets the ball 1st & goal at the 6. They can forego the 2 points in favor of a layup touchdown opportunity.

If the foul does not occur in the end zone in this circumstance, the rules already allowed this to be enforced from the previous spot and taking back the safety.

This revised rule will only really be beneficial when there is a loss-of-down penalty on fourth down. Illegally kicking or batting a loose ball on a failed fourth down is a loss-of-down penalty, as is an illegal second pass on any down. The new rule would not apply to intentional grounding, but if one happens on fourth down, the defense can decline the penalty and the safety and take the incomplete pass to gain possession.

Will we see this new rule in action this season? There’s a lot of things that have to come together at the right time to even make this an option. If there is little time on the clock and depending on the point margin, this might introduce a new advantage. Given the right conditions, it’s possible, and who will be the first coach to take that safety off the board?

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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