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How the NFL’s Rules Changes Will Affect the League

The owners approved a number of proposals Tuesday that could have a larger impact on football than you might think

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL passed some substantial changes to its rules and bylaws on Tuesday, addressing issues around safer tackling, the ever-elusive definition of a catch, and numerous other guidelines that could affect the 2018 season and beyond. Here are the changes that passed, the proposals that failed, and why they matter.

Approved Proposals

Penalizing (and Possibly Ejecting) Players for Unsafe Hits

The Proposal: Players will now be penalized 15 yards and may be ejected for using the crown of the helmet. “This has very little requirement to it,” Rich McKay, Falcons president and the head of the NFL competition committee, told reporters on Tuesday. “This is simply if you lower your head to initiate contact and you make contact with an opponent it’s a foul.”

The Takeaway: The league made this change in the wake of a year of frightening helmet-to-helmet hits and a scary tackle by Ryan Shazier that resulted in his having spinal surgery. Now the NFL is strengthening language around using the crown of the helmet that will further restrict how defenders tackle, applicable anywhere on the field. McKay called the updated language for the limited crown of the helmet a “pretty significant change.”

Now players may get ejected for using the crown of the helmet, even if the instance isn’t considered flagrant or occurs on a helmet-to-helmet hit. Though how officials will define “lowering your head to initiate contact” is unclear.

Notably absent from the league’s safety updates are changes to the NFL’s concussion protocol, which was scrutinized after a number of quarterbacks reentered games after appearing to suffer concussions, including Russell Wilson, Jacoby Brissett, Tom Savage, and Cam Newton. Diagnosed concussions rose from 243 in 2016 to 281 in 2017, a 15.6 percent increase, though officials said that increased self-reporting rates have partially driven the increase.

An Updated Catch Rule

The Proposal: The NFL has eliminated the requirement for a catch to survive the ground. A catch still requires control and two feet (or another body part) down, but the new wrinkle is the third condition, which also requires either:

  1. A “football move” — for example, a third step or reaching for more yardage
  2. The ability to make such a move

The Takeaway: Be careful what you wish for. Referees are now responsible for judging what a player might be able to do, which is muddy new territory for the NFL rulebook. We won’t know how the updated rule will affect competition until the games begin, but it could create even more controversial plays.

As former NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino pointed out earlier this month, there are 17,000 to 18,000 pass plays every year, and the catch rule debate revolves around only a handful of them. The competition committee worked backward to figure out which plays should be catches and which should not be (i.e., they wanted the new rule to make sure the infamous Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson plays would count). While that may briefly placate the mob, reverse-engineering a wide-ranging policy to fit a handful of high-profile examples could backfire. Referees interpreting the new rules could affect dozens of pass plays in unforeseen ways — uncontroversial catches may become controversial fumbles — and have us nostalgic for when the catch rule bothered us less than 1 percent of the time.

Funding for Local Social Justice Initiatives

The Proposal: A $16 million donation toward local social justice initiatives, half from owners and half from players.

The Takeaway: While not a change to the rulebook, this policy could have a wide impact. The Players Coalition, an informal group of roughly 40 players led by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and the retired Anquan Boldin, met with NFL owners in New York in November and negotiated an $89 million package over seven years from NFL owners toward social justice causes, the largest charitable commitment in league history. According to ESPN’s Tim McManus, $73 million of that had already been approved, but the final $16 million earmarked for local causes was approved Tuesday. As Jenkins explained:

BLOCKQUOTE: Each team would create a fund for grants that players would be able to issue to causes in their community that deal around police accountability, community-police relations, criminal justice reform broadly as well as economical and educational advancement. It’s not only the money that is already committed from a national standpoint, but it’s a way for every team to have that kind of footprint in their market, with players kind of leading that drive.

The Players Coalition faced some internal strife during negotiations, but now have secured a tangible gain from ownership in local communities, even if it does amount to just $500,000 per team. Owners also discussed whether to address the issue of players protesting during the national anthem, including a mandate to stand or keeping players in the locker room during the song, but the discussion was tabled until the next meeting in May.

Allow the League’s Remote Officials to Eject Players

The Proposal: League officials in New York can eject players on replay review.

The Takeaway: Call this the Gronk Rule. In a Week 13 game at Buffalo, Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White intercepted a pass intended for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and then fell to the ground out of bounds. With White lying on the sideline well after the whistle had been blown, Gronkowski launched his shoulder into the back of White’s head, concussing him. Bill Belichick called Gronkowski’s actions “bullshit.”

Gronkowski drew a personal foul on the play, but was not ejected by officials, and the league office later suspended him for a game. Under the new rule, officials in New York can review a play and eject a player from the game, even if the referees on the field declined to eject him earlier.

Allow Teams to Trade Players on Injured Reserve

The Proposal: Players on injured reserve were previously spared from the chopping block. Now they’re free to be dealt.

The Takeaway: The Broncos submitted this proposal, and here’s GM John Elway explaining the move.

First off, let’s never refer to players as “property” ever again. Secondly, trades are on the rise around the NFL, and this rule opens the possibility for a title contender to trade a star player on IR to a cellar dweller for chips to help the team win right away — or to trade for a player on another team’s IR who may be returning soon.

Anything that facilitates more trades seems great, but this rule could also create a potentially perverse incentive structure for teams to overstate a player’s health or rush their recovery timeline to maximize their trade value. While there’s no evidence that teams will compromise players’ medical care to facilitate trades, it’s another reason to avoid referring to employees as “property.”

Eliminate Meaningless PATs

The Proposal: Removing the rule that PATs must be kicked after game-ending touchdowns, even if time has expired and the kick will have no impact on the outcome of the game.

The Takeaway: In theory, these PATs matter for point differential, a potential playoff-seeding tiebreaker. In reality, the losing team needs to send out players for PAT defense, even when there’s no time on the clock and they’ve suffered a humiliating loss. After the Minneapolis Miracle gave the Vikings the lead over the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs with no time remaining, the referees added insult to injury and pulled some New Orleans players out of the locker room and forced them onto the field for the PAT attempt. One of them was a punter.

Kicking meaningless PATs rarely happens, but it’s a silly exercise and an easy one to eliminate, especially in the playoffs, where point differential doesn’t matter. The losing players get briefly humiliated, and the postgame interviews and celebrations of marquee moments like the Minneapolis Miracle get briefly derailed for a meaningless, confusing play. It’s the smallest detail imaginable, and was surely a simple change for the NFL to make.

Failed Proposals

Soften Pass Interference Penalties

The Proposal: Change pass interference from a spot foul to a college-football-style 15-yard penalty, except in cases of egregious interference to stop a big play.

The Takeaway: Rules that would dramatically alter the game need time to marinate in the public consciousness, and this is just the beginning of a broader pass interference debate. A good example of the impetus for the proposal is this penalty on A.J. Bouye while he was defending Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks that moved the Patriots 32 yards downfield right before halftime of the AFC championship game, which they turned into a touchdown two plays later.

Whether or not you think that’s a penalty, the argument is that referees’ subjective calls on pass interference disproportionately reward the offense. As more ticky-tacky pass interference calls inevitably swing games over the next few seasons, public support for this rule may increase one fan base at a time.

The Josh McDaniels Rule

The Proposal: Allow coaches on playoff teams to accept job offers during the postseason.

The Idea: By nature of coaching a postseason-bound unit, assistant coaches on playoff teams often interview for head coaching jobs. The league allows assistants to interview for jobs during the postseason but not accept them, which creates awkward situations for coaches who have a handshake deal with a team but cannot officially talk about it. It also created the potential for Josh McDaniels to get cold feet after the Colts started selling McDaniels-style visors in their team store.

Occasionally there’s room for a McDaniels situation where a coach gets cold feet, but this proposal has more to do with prospective head coaches wanting to get a head start on assembling a staff during the playoffs.

This piece was updated at 11:53 a.m. ET on March 28 to reflect that the NFL voted to do away with meaningless PATs.