clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Rule Changes We’d Make to Improve the NFL

The sport is fun, but flawed. We can fix that.

An NFL referee holding a coin Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most popular sport in America is changing faster than it ever has before — yet the way we talk about the game has largely stayed the same. It’s time for the conversation to catch up to the shifting concepts redefining front offices and gameplay nationwide. So welcome to The Ringer’s You Don’t Know Football Week, where we’ll explore and attempt to better understand the evolutions already occurring on the gridiron — and the reboots we’d like to see make their way to the game next.


Every season, the NFL takes steps toward improving the game of football. This year, the league modified the rulebook to tweak overtime, relax celebration rules, change the way replay reviews work, and more. But we have some better ideas. None of these will cure football’s real ills—like concussions or the NFL’s domestic violence crisis — but they will make the on-field product more fun. These are our best ideas to improve football:

Eliminate the Chain Gang

Danny Kelly: It’s time to end the charade for good. For whatever reason, the NFL still trots its first-down chain out to midfield, stretching it out over the ball to dramatically display whether or not the offense got the necessary yardage. He got it! The crowd goes wild! The ref throws his arm forward with an emphatic “first down” signal! Or: The crowd groans! We get that “just missed it by inches” signal! Now what?!

2017 NFL Preview

Sure, it’s exciting, but the fact is, measuring this arbitrary spot in the first place is about as silly as anything in sports. I realize it’s not a simple process. The referee charged with spotting the ball has to run up to the pile of bodies at the end of a play, grab the football—which is moving all over the place as everyone’s getting up—then put it down as he tries to line up with the sideline judge’s wildly inaccurate guess on where forward progress stopped. But it’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and games often hang in the balance on these calls. It’s time to develop and implement technology—maybe using camera angles, GPS, and/or an embedded microchip in the ball—that gives us slightly more accurate measurements. We put a man on the moon! We can do this.

Do Away With Illegal Formations and Ineligible Receivers

Michael Baumann: Football has too many rules. You can throw the ball, but only in certain directions from certain points on the field, and only certain players can do certain things and can touch the ball only under certain circumstances. It's like the NFL is run by the cops from that one tiny town everyone has to drive through that derives 80 percent of its revenue from speeding tickets. Enough.

From now on, 11 guys from one team have to line up on one side of the ball and 11 guys can line up on the other side of the ball, and as long as they stay onside they can stand wherever they want and touch the ball wherever and whenever they want. We can keep the offensive motion rules so this doesn't turn into the Arena League if you want, but it'd open up the game and keep the illegal formation penalties from ruining awesome trick plays, which is the only thing those ever do.

Let the Players Celebrate

Haley O’Shaughnessy: The NFL announced last spring that in the upcoming 2017 season, it would no longer penalize grown men from dancing in the end zone. (The NFL is no longer a regular mom, it’s a cool mom). "We know,” said commissioner Roger Goodell in May, “that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown." (A normal and not robotic way to say that dancing is fun, by the way—Goodell is 100 percent not an android). But there are still exceptions and rules to the dancing: no “offensive demonstrations” (that means none of this), no overly drawn out celebrations that delay the game (that means none of this), and nothing “directed at an opponent” (that means none of this). The NFL isn’t known for its leniency, either, and likely won’t be flexible with the free expression that makes dancing what it is—like Rog said, a “spontaneous display of emotion”—give me your twerk, your running man, your huddled teammates yearning to moonwalk free.

Make the NFL’s Overtime Like the NCAA’s … With a Twist

Riley McAtee: The NFL has never had a great solution for what to do when a game ends in regulation with the score tied. Until 1974, the league just let regular-season games end in ties, which is no fun for anyone. The sudden-death overtime reigned until 2010, when the NFL owners voted for a rule change that specifies that the team that controls the ball first in overtime can’t win with just a field goal. If that team does kick a field goal, the other team gets a possession to try match with a field goal of their own or to score a touchdown to win. This season, a new rule change is on the books: The overtime period will last just 10 minutes, instead of 15.

This has never been a satisfying way to end a game. Luckily, there is a solution: The NFL just has to look to college football, where teams take turns with the ball in overtime until someone fails to match the other. It’s perfect, with one small problem: The 25-yard line is too close to the end zone to be the spot where the league gives the offense the ball. So the NFL should tweak that slightly. Make it the 30-yard line (teams need to get at least a first down before they’re in the red zone), and push it back 10 yards for every subsequent overtime period. Since drives will get longer and more difficult with each OT, there’s no need to force teams to go for two (like the NCAA does). It’s a win-win—both more exciting and more fair than the current setup.

Replace the Coin Toss With a Jump Ball

Megan Schuster: What is the most boring part of any NFL game?

Some might argue the kickoffs, or all the breaks in play, or having to sit at home and listen to Joe Buck calling the action (sorry, Joe, that’s not me, I promise, I really don’t mind you). But all those answers are wrong. The least interesting part of any NFL game is the coin toss.

The coin toss has been connected to professional football since 1892 and hasn’t changed much since. Its current iteration is simple: The visiting team’s captain calls heads or tails before the coin is flipped; the coin is flipped; the winner gets to choose between (1) receiving or defending, and (2) which end zone his team will defend. That’s it. What a yawn! Where’s the excitement? Where’s the athleticism on display? Who gets amped up for a coin toss? So instead of the traditional way of deciding opening possession, I propose a change: institute an NBA-like jump ball.

We’re not going full-NBA here—there will be one slight change from those rules. In the NFL version, the player going up for the jump ball can’t just tip it to another player or the opposing side; he has to come down with it. Other than that, once the ball is in the air, it’s a free-for-all! This adds some skill and strategy to the jump ball. As a coach, do you want to just send a big, tall receiver out there to go up and get it? Or how about your most ruthless DB to box out the other man? You can’t tell me you don’t want this. Just imagine: Week 14, Cowboys at Giants, the game starting off with a Dez Bryant–vs.–Odell Beckham Jr. jump ball. That would be appointment viewing. Even if you turn off the game after the first quarter, imagine being the person at the water cooler the next day who didn’t witness Dez vs. OBJ.

Ban Punting

Shaker Samman: There is no cowardice in life that rivals walking up to the line of scrimmage, looking your opponent in the eye, and conceding you’re just not good enough to challenge them. That’s what happens every time a team punts. A punt is a confirmation of weakness. And institutional weakness is unacceptable. In my NFL, instead of punting on fourth down, teams would have to go for it.

I’m sure we’d miss seeing Marquette King do Marquette King things, but only 0.3 percent of punts were returned for touchdowns last year. In comparison, 4.05 percent of all other plays went for six. Sure, those seven runback scores were great, but we wouldn’t miss the 2,335 punts that could be Hail Marys or breakout runs instead. So ban punting. Leave the field-length boots to the pros.

Let Coaches Challenge All Rulings on the Field

Kevin O’Connor: In 2014 the Patriots proposed four rule changes, including allowing coaches to challenge all rulings on the field, except for scoring plays and turnovers (which are automatically reviewed). Bill Belichick proposed it because, in part, penalties (or non-calls) can drastically impact the result of the game—whether it’s an egregiously missed offensive holding, or the offense isn’t set, or a helmet-to-helmet hit—in the same way a close sideline catch or a run inches short of a first down does.

“If we fundamentally want to try to get the games right and the plays right, then I don’t see why they should be excluded,” Belichick said. “It’s not going to slow the game down. It’s no different than if you challenged another play. So, I’m not looking for more challenges or anything else, just if you think it was a call that was missed, that you should have the opportunity to have the officials review it.” Other NFL coaches—such as Gary Kubiak and Jason Garrett—have expressed support of the rule proposal. The Bills and Seahawks jointly proposed a similar rule change in March, but owners rejected it once again.

The official rule book should be thrown into a volcano. Football is not an easy game to understand in the same way basketball, baseball, or soccer is. The strategic element is inherently what makes it so great, but it shouldn’t be overly complicated or wordy for the sake of it. By allowing coaches to challenge everything (except automatically reviewable plays), a complicated game gets simplified for coaches, fans, and referees. “Every year it gets amended and it’s hard to keep it straight,” Belichick said. “I can’t get it right. ... I don’t know how the fans could possibly get it right if the coaches can’t get it right. For the officials themselves, it’s challenging.”

Create the NFL’s Version of Star Search

Jordan Coley: This season’s shaping up to offer a continuation of last year’s national anthem protest and controversy. Because this is such a complex issue that speaks to historically fraught social and racial dynamics in this country that extend far beyond football, and also because I would rather have James Harrison punch me in the chest than listen to another word this guy has to say about it, I have taken it upon myself to offer a potential alternative pregame activity that I think would keep the NFL and its owners comfortable and make the league more fun to watch.

In lieu of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” each NFL game should host a weekly Star Search. Players and coaches from each side will enter their names in a lottery. Whoever wins will be selected to perform before the game, and have the opportunity to put a special, non-football-related talent on full display. OBJ could finally have a place to perform that routine he’s clearly been working on. Eli might have space to indulge his two true loves: juggling and talking about his dad. And, who knows, your Sunday evening could easily turn into a lovely night at the opera with Justin Tucker.

For years, the NBA has stepped all over the NFL as the cool league, the sport with personality. With The Shield™ (you’re welcome), the NFL can begin to close the gap. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Eliminate the PAT and Offer Two-, Three-, and Four-Point Conversions

Danny Heifetz: Moving the extra point back hasn’t made kicking less boring, so let’s eliminate the extra point altogether, and make teams try for the two-point conversion after every touchdown. There were 1,306 touchdowns last season, which is about five touchdowns per game. If we eliminate the PAT, we can inject five goal-to-go scoring situations into every game. That’s a no-brainer.

And why stop there? Let’s borrow from the NBA’s innovative spirit and offer some extra incentive for increased degree of difficulty. After a touchdown, teams can go for two points from the 2-yard line, but why not add a three-point conversion from the 10-yard line? Hell, let’s toss in a four-point conversion from the 25. We could even let teams double down on their conversions. If the offense converts the two-point try, the team can keep the eight points ... or go double or nothing and try again, walking away with either six points or 10. And then if they convert that, they could double down again. I want more one-possession games, and more ways for coaches to win a game with a mic-drop decision. More points plus letting coaches gamble with those points equals more fun.