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Which of the Proposed NFL Rule Changes Could Fix What’s Wrong With the Game?

Owners will consider several changes to the rule book this week, including ones that would tackle reviewable penalties and overtime, as well as a radical plan to replace onside kicks

A photo illustration of NFL officials looking into the light of rule changes Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL owners meetings is underway in Phoenix, and in between diving into gold coins in the hotel swimming pool and comparing the sizes of their yachts, the owners will consider a number of rule proposals that will shape the NFL in 2019 and beyond. Here are the rules most likely to be changed, as well as a couple that should change but probably won’t.

Instant Replay for Blown Calls

The uncalled pass-interference penalty on Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC championship game likely cost New Orleans a spot in the Super Bowl and definitely sent Saints head coach Sean Payton into a sadness spiral of Jeni’s ice cream and The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix (that’s not a joke). Saints fans subsequently held a protest parade, filed a lawsuit, and requested Roger Goodell testify before Congress because of this error. The NFL’s competition committee exists largely to fix these kinds of mistakes, and, well, look at who sits on the committee this year.

  • Rich McKay (chairman): president, Atlanta Falcons
  • John Mara: owner, New York Giants
  • Stephen Jones: owner, Dallas Cowboys
  • Mark Murphy: president, Green Bay Packers
  • Ozzie Newsome: general manager, Baltimore Ravens
  • Mike Tomlin: head coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • John Elway: general manager, Denver Broncos
  • Sean Payton: head coach, New Orleans Saints

Yes, Sean Payton is on the committee that is recommending rule changes this year. Unsurprisingly, the competition committee has recommended two major instant-replay rule changes in the wake of the New Orleans debacle. Surprisingly, neither would change what happened to the Saints.

The first proposal would make pass interference a reviewable penalty and also add it to the list of plays automatically reviewed on scores or turnovers (so if a defensive pass interference wiped out an interception or if an offensive pass interference call wiped out a touchdown, the play would be reviewed automatically). The second proposal keeps the same language as the first proposal for pass interference but goes even further by also making roughing the passer (which the league tightened the definition on last year, which led to plays like the phantom Clay Matthews call in Week 2) and penalties against hitting defenseless players reviewable as well. These proposals would give officials the ability to overturn a penalty after viewing instant replay, but they do not give officials the power to call a penalty that went uncalled. The NFC championship game turned on a referee failing to throw an obvious flag, and these rules only address terrible flags that are actually thrown. The competition committee seems to be saying that the rules that would actually fix the aberration in the NFC championship game would cause more problems than it would solve by allowing penalties to be called after the play is over.

A potential replay-free solution would be to steal the AAF idea for a “sky judge” (also a character in the next Avengers movie) who can correct an obviously wrong and/or missed call on the field immediately, without having to use instant replay, for particularly egregious misses. McKay told reporters that nobody on the committee, apparently including Payton, wanted to implement a sky judge.

Instant Replay (for Everything Else)

The competition committee is the main source of rule proposals, but teams are also allowed to submit their own proposals, and multiple organizations submitted ones around replay review (you can read the full list of proposals here). Four teams (Carolina, L.A. Rams, Philadelphia, and Seattle) want to make safety-related penalties reviewable whether they were called or not—a sensible idea. Kansas City wants to make all personal fouls reviewable, whether they were called or not. Denver wants to make extra points and two-point conversions automatically reviewed, just like touchdowns are (also sensible). The Broncos also want to make all fourth-down plays spotted shy of the goal line or first down to be automatically reviewed. Given the importance of the situation and the shockingly low-tech ways NFL spots are called, it’s not the worst idea.

Then there is Washington, who wants to make everything reviewable. Here are a pair of proposals by Washington owner Dan Snyder and Co.

Washington: Subject all plays that occur during a game to coaches’ challenge by teams or review by the Officiating department in the instant replay system.

Washington: Add review of personal fouls as reviewable plays in the instant replay system.

Making everything reviewable sounds great, but in practice it will probably just create more ways for the NFL to screw things up.

Overtime

Both championship games this year inspired rules controversies. New England’s victory over Kansas City in overtime of the AFC championship game reminded many fans that the NFL’s overtime rules don’t make sense. The Chiefs have proposed a rule that would have given them the ball even after the Patriots scored a touchdown.

Kansas City Chiefs: (1) Allow both teams the opportunity to possess the ball at least one time in overtime, even if the first team to possess the ball in overtime scores a touchdown; (2) eliminate overtime for preseason; and (3) eliminate overtime coin toss so that winner of initial coin toss to begin game may choose whether to kick or receive, or which goal to defend.

To all the Patriots fans right now saying if you want to win, play defense!—a coin flip should not decide which team must play defense. There’s about a dozen different solid ideas to fix overtime and all have drawbacks; that said, the NFL’s current system is a half-measure and should be fixed—and not just because it helped the Patriots (though obviously that travesty is the catalyst here).

Onside Kicks

The Broncos suggested the coolest potential change and one of the least likely proposals to pass for 2019.

Denver: Provide an alternative to the onside kick that would allow a team who is trailing in the game an opportunity to maintain possession of the ball after scoring.

The specifics here are vague, but they might be, uh, borrowing an idea from the AAF, which allows teams down 17 or more points with five minutes or less left in the game to attempt a fourth-and-12 from their own 28-yard line instead of an onside kick. If the team converts, they keep the ball, and if they don’t convert, they turn the ball over on downs. It’s brilliant, and it also speeds along the NFL’s apparent desire to eliminate the kickoff altogether. More importantly, it would mean more fourth-and-12 chances with the game on the line. This rule appears to have some life after the competition committee voted 7-1 to put this rule to a full vote, and the only “no” appears to hate fun.

Eagles Come for the King and Miss

The Lions and Cowboys always host a home game on Thanksgiving. Both teams love the tradition (for rea$on$). The Eagles proposed a rule that would let both teams keep playing on Thanksgiving Day, but force them to make it an away game every other year, probably because Philadelphia is annoyed at how often it has to head to Dallas for Turkey Day. Apparently Jerry Jones holds a Frank Underwood–like sway over his fellow owners when he wants to, because the Eagles rescinded the proposal before it even went before the owners. Only God and Dan Snyder know what underground politicking Jones was conducting on his yacht to kill that one in the cradle.