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The NFL, the NCAA, and the Eternal Football Rules Debate

From overtime to pass interference to PATs, college and pro football have long had distinct sets of rules. So which level does it best? Let’s examine six key differences—and decide whose version is superior.

Ringer illustration

The most famous play of the 2018 season wasn’t a catch, tackle, or run—it was the blown call heard round the world that helped propel the Rams past the Saints and into the Super Bowl. This offseason, the NFL changed its rules to make pass interference reviewable. But did it go too far? In trying to avoid one controversy, did the league create the potential for another? What debates could happen next? On Friday, The Ringer explores the ever-changing state of football officiating, and how it continues to shape how we experience the game.


Here in America, we play by our own rules. I don’t mean this in some jingoistic, political, or metaphorical way. I mean that the United States is pretty much the only country on the planet that insists on creating its own rules for every sport it plays.

Take basketball. Virtually every country on earth uses the rules put forth by FIBA, the international governing body of the sport. Every country, that is, except America, where the NBA and NCAA each have separate sets of rules. And while men and women play by the same rules under FIBA, the WNBA and women’s college basketball have their own sets of rules that differ from each other, from the international rules, and from American men’s rules.

Unlike basketball, American football is not a game played across the world. The vast majority of football interest and participation lies in two countries: the United States and Canada. And yet, somehow, we’re a million miles from having anything resembling a consensus on rules. The NFL has its own distinct rules; the NCAA has its own distinct rules. Canadian football rules are so dramatically dissimilar from American football rules that its form of the game is generally considered its own sport. Whenever a new football league launches, like the AAF or XFL, it does not consider it an option to simply adopt the NFL’s rule book. New leagues always come with rule adaptations designed to make the game more enjoyable. (I will never forget the original XFL’s Steal the Bacon–style coin toss replacements.)

The NFL and NCAA have no incentive to unify their rules, and probably never will. The NFL is too proud and vain, and perpetually considers itself to be the smartest organization in the world; it’d consider sharing rules to represent a step backward. The NCAA was expressly founded to standardize rules back in 1906 and eventually grew into a multibillion-dollar enterprise; it clings to creating unique, often unnecessary rules for various sports, as if it fears that the multibillion-dollar enterprise might collapse if it gave up its initial purpose of writing rule books. I mean, the NCAA even created a new rule book for soccer, possibly the only league that felt compelled to do so.

So when pro football and college football differ, who wins? We took a look at six major rule differences to determine which version is superior.

Overtime

What’s the difference?

The NFL uses a modified sudden-death overtime format in which the first team to score wins, unless the first score is a field goal on the opening possession of overtime. In that case, the other team then gets the chance to respond. (As soon as you read the words “modified sudden death,” you knew it was going to be complicated and unenjoyable.) In the regular season, if the game is tied after 15 minutes, the result is a tie.

College football uses “the Kansas system,” which gives each team one possession starting from the 25-yard line, with the team scoring the most points on its possession getting the win. In the result of a tie, each team repeats the process. Starting this year, the fifth overtime will actually give teams a single play from the 3-yard line. You either score or you don’t—this is like a penalty-kick shootout, except for two-point conversions.

Which version is better?

One secret is that neither format is particularly fair. The unfairness of the NFL overtime period is patently obvious, because a team can win after just one possession. You know, like the Patriots did in Super Bowl LI, and like the Patriots did in January’s AFC championship game. (Everything really always works out for the Patriots, huh?)

The college overtime system seems fairer, since both teams are guaranteed an offensive possession. But the college system is actually tilted in favor of the team that gets the ball second, since it knows how many points it needs and can tailor its approach accordingly. If you know you need a touchdown, you know you have to go for it on fourth down. The team that gets the ball first wins in more than 50 percent of NFL overtimes; the team that gets the ball second wins in more than 50 percent of college overtimes.

While neither approach is fair, at least the college football system feels cool. The NFL’s overtime is just the same football played in the first 60 minutes with a few additional rules. College overtime feels like it’s a fun mini-game. NFL overtime is unfair and unfun, which is a bad combo. College overtime is unfair BUT WITH EXPLOSIONS.

Plus, we have to consider the end result of each system. The NFL allows for ties. Ties! The horror! Meanwhile, college football has invented a two-point conversion shootout. This one isn’t even close.

The college version is better.

Sideline Catches

What’s the difference?

In the NFL, receivers must touch both feet down inbounds to make a catch. In college, only one foot down is required. Fun fact: Every single time a college receiver manages to get both feet inbounds while making a catch, the announcer is obligated by law to say, “Hey, that’d be a catch on Sundays!”

Which version is better?

The college rule makes catches easier. College receivers can often make sideline catches without breaking their stride. This means more offense, which means more points and ridiculous comebacks.

However, the NFL rule led to the invention of the toe tap, catches during which a receiver must break stride to get both feet down inbounds, often falling over in the process. There’s something truly spectacular about the coordination required to pull off the toe tap.

Catching a ball generally requires a human’s full attention. However, the toe tap asks receivers to also think about where their feet are going to land while they try to catch the football.

The toe tap is a ballet move on grass, a moment when a human flying at full speed performs two incredibly difficult tasks, with two different parts of the body, simultaneously. The college rule might facilitate more catches, but the NFL rule created a category of brilliant plays that highlight the unique and preposterous athleticism of football players. It has the edge.

The NFL version is better.

Down by Contact

What’s the difference?

In both college football and the NFL, plays end whenever a ball carrier is deemed “down.” In college, ball carriers are ruled down when any part of their body besides the feet or hands touches the ground. It doesn’t matter whether a defensive player makes contact with the ball carrier or not. That player is down regardless.

In the NFL, a ball carrier can only become down by contact, meaning that defenders must force a ball carrier to the ground, or at least touch the ball carrier while that player is on the ground. (Ball carriers can also go down by intentionally sliding or taking a knee in both sets of rules.)

Which version is better?

The difference between the two rules only comes into play in a few specific circumstances. By far the most common is when a player dives for a catch, although it could also come up when a ball carrier trips and falls or gets knocked over by a teammate. In college, a player who makes a diving catch is automatically down; in the pros, that player must also be touched.

In theory, I prefer the NFL rule. The defense shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt! They should have to make every tackle!

Take this play, where T.Y. Hilton deftly avoids Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson. When Hilton lands, most of his body is touching the ground, and all the Texans need to do is touch him to end the play. However, Texans safety Andre Hal sees Hilton on the ground, and presuming that Jackson nipped him, slows from a run to a jog, from a jog to a walk, and begins preparing for the next play. Then Hilton gets up and scores a touchdown. His acrobatic maneuver to avoid the tackle feels like it deserves a reward! And the Texans’ stupidity in not touching him should be penalized!

However, I feel like this rule allows too many opportunities for confusion on the part of both players and officials. Extensive reviews to determine whether a grounded player has been touched are surprisingly common, and every once in a while, confusion about whether a player has been touched down creates an officiating failure that’d never happen in college. Take a down-by-contact play that has eaten away at every human in the city of Jacksonville for two years: the play where Myles Jack Wasn’t Down.

Jack made a brilliant play to rip the ball away from Patriots running back Dion Lewis. While their bodies clearly touched when both were on the ground, Jack didn’t gain possession until after he was no longer touching Lewis. According to the NFL rule book, this means that he was never down by contact. Jack should have been able to get up and run to the end zone. (And, yes, he would have run to the end zone, given that there were zero Patriots in the vicinity.) If Jack had done that, the Jaguars would have taken a 27-10 lead and presumably gone to the Super Bowl.

But an official wrongly assumed that Jack had been touched by Lewis while down, thus blowing his whistle. Although Jack was never down, the whistle negated anything that happened afterward, since officials aren’t allowed to presume an advance after a whistle. In college, Jack would’ve been down regardless, eliminating the possibility for a ref to miss a call.

In spirit, I love the down-by-contact rule. It gives way to spectacular feats of acrobatics by ball carriers and hilarious brainfarts by defenders, resulting in a handful of fluky, funny scores. However, it also leads to unnecessarily complicated situations. The college rule is simple for players and officials. It’s easy to tell when a player’s body is touching the ground. (Well, usually.) The pro rule forces everybody to additionally determine whether a touch has been made, and that’s not as easy as it seems.

The college version is better.

Stopping the Clock After First Downs

What’s the difference?

In college, the game clock stops whenever the offense picks up a first down, restarting when the chain crew sets the first-down markers. There is no such stoppage in the NFL.

Which version is better?

There’s a reason that college football features more absurd finishes than the pros. OK, there are two reasons. One is that college football players are 18- to 21-year-old amateurs, leading to a variety of comical errors that simply don’t happen in the pros. The second is the clock stoppages.

Take Clemson’s game-winning drive against Alabama in the national championship game after the 2016 season, which ended with Deshaun Watson throwing a touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left on the clock. The Tigers got the ball on their own 32-yard line with 2:07 to go and two timeouts. How many plays do you think they ran? Five? Six?

The answer is nine, 10 if we include a play wiped out by penalty that took time off the clock. After a 24-yard pass to Mike Williams, the clock stopped for roughly 15 seconds. After a 6-yard pass to Renfrow, the clock stopped for nine seconds, allowing the Tigers to get up to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball while losing just two seconds instead of 10 or more.

The Tigers were hurried, but not frenetic, allowing them to run their offense and win the game. They didn’t even need to use all of their timeouts. For teams to pull off last-second touchdown drives in the NFL, they need to get out of bounds to stop the clock, or else score freaky miracle touchdowns. Too often, defenses can ice the game by simply guarding the sidelines. The first-down clock stoppage is the equivalent of the NBA rule that allows offenses to advance the ball to half court with a timeout late in games, while college teams must move the ball from one end of the court to the other.

The drawback is that stoppages on first downs make college games considerably longer. I don’t really see why it’s necessary for officials to stop the clock for 10ish seconds on every single first down both teams pick up for all 60 minutes. That said, I’d still rather have more comebacks.

The college rule is better.

The PAT

What’s the difference?

In college, the point after touchdown play starts from the 3-yard line, regardless of whether it is an extra point attempt or a two-point conversion attempt. In the NFL, two-point conversion attempts start from the 2-yard line, while a 2015 rule change pushed extra point attempts back to the 15-yard line.

Which version is better?

I originally didn’t like the idea of pushing back extra point attempts. The idea was to make the extra point a legitimate play instead of an automatic score. On the one hand, this change did too little. In 2014, the final year before the change, NFL kickers made 99.3 percent of their extra points; in 2018, they made 94.3 percent. On the other hand, the change did too much. My take at the time: Who wants to see games decided by extra point misses?

However, I quickly changed my stance. A mislaid point here or there does, in fact, make football more interesting. The missed extra point itself is not the interesting part—it’s how teams attempt to make up for that loss of a point with other two-point tries later. Anything that adds a little bit of variety to the sport makes it more interesting. Now, I feel like 94.3 percent is still too high. Move the extra point back to the 35-yard line!

College probably doesn’t need to introduce a more difficult extra point, since college kickers struggle with the 20-yarder they have to hit. (Some miss as many as 10 percent of their extra points.) However, I agree with the overarching premise of making the extra point more difficult.

The NFL rule is better.

The Defensive Pass Interference Penalty

What’s the difference?

In college, the penalty for defensive pass interference is capped at 15 yards. Up to 15 yards, interference is a spot foul, meaning a defensive pass interference call 8 yards downfield would give the offense the ball 8 yards downfield. In the NFL, DPI is a spot foul regardless of how far downfield the foul is committed. Every other NFL infringement is capped at 15 yards—defensive pass interference is the only true spot foul in the game.

(Note: This season, for the first time, the NFL is debuting the ability for coaches to challenge pass interference penalties. Let’s wait for that rule to settle in before deciding whether it’s a good innovation.)

Which version is better?

There’s an argument against both the college and pro rules here. The dig on the college rule is that the 15-yard cap on pass interference penalties encourages defenders to intentionally commit interference by flagrantly tackling a receiver before the ball reaches him on plays where a touchdown is likely. I don’t think this is a huge problem. I watch a lot of college football, and there is not an epidemic of intentional pass interference. Even if there was … what would be the big deal? If a defender shows the awareness to realize he’s been beaten and commit a penalty, well, I’m fine with it. After all, the defense still has to give up 15 yards. The basketball world accepts the concept of a “smart foul”—why can’t the football world accept a “smart penalty,” too?

The problem with the NFL rule is that an offense can pick up huge yardage on a single defensive infraction. Last year, there were 17 DPI penalties that netted an offense 40 yards or more. That seems excessive. Factor in the difficulty that referees have had accurately officiating pass interference decisions, and it seems downright reckless to allow for such big gains on an official’s judgment call.

In 2016, Aaron Rodgers launched a 70-yard bomb against the Lions, but receiver Trevor Davis fell to the ground before he could catch it. Detroit cornerback Nevin Lawson was flagged for PI and the ball was advanced 66 yards, widely believed to be the largest penalty in NFL history—and it was a mistake. The NFL phoned the Lions after the game to let them know that the flag on Lawson was thrown in error, but it was too late. The penalty turned what should have been a third-and-11 at the Green Bay 32-yard line into a first-and-goal from the Detroit 2. The Packers scored a play later, and eventually won 34-27.

This is one area where we could see a change, especially after the botched pass interference call in the NFC championship game highlighted that PI calls aren’t always accurate. Last year, the Jets proposed that the NFL adopt a 15-yard pass interference penalty, granting officials the ability to call a spot foul if a penalty was “intentional and egregious,” a pre-emptive attempt to eliminate the non-problem of defenders committing intentional fouls.

The college rule is better.