Ask the Official: 2017 Rule Changes

With the start of the season almost upon us, it might be useful to look at the various changes that have been implemented that will affect the manner in which the game will be officiated this season.

Possibly the most noticeable is the departure of Dean Blandino from his position as Vice President of Officiating to a new role in the TV booth where he will join Mike Pereira on FOX broadcasts interpreting the rules.

Blandino will be replaced by Alberto Riveron, who was a Referee in the league for a number of years,  and Riveron will be assisted by former Head Linesman Wayne Mackie as vice president of officiating evaluation and development, and Russell Yurk, a former college official from the Phoenix area as vice president of instant replay and administration.

Perhaps most importantly, these three gentlemen working from the New York-based NFL office will now have final responsibility for the decisions on any play that is challenged.

Although the game referee will continue to provide input, the final decision has been taken out of his hands and moved to a centralized location. The hope is that this will result in greater consistency and less time delays in the conduct of the game. No longer will the Referee go “under the hood” but instead will work from a “tablet” that will be provided to him on the sidelines.

Speaking of Referees, all 17 of the individuals who served as “White Hats” last season are back for this season. There will be eight new officials joining the league replacing four who have retired, three who have moved into supervisory roles and one who was terminated.

As in the past there will be 17 crews of seven officials and five “swing” officials who will fill in with the various crews as the season progresses.

Sarah Thomas, the league’s only female official, has been moved to her third crew in three years and has been moved from Line Judge to the other wing position. This move has caused the league to change the title of the position from Head Linesman to Down Judge. The officials working that position will now have a “D” on their backs instead of the previous “H”.

There are only a few rule changes this season, as follows:

  1. Defensive players will no longer be allowed to jump over the Offensive Linemen in an attempt to block the kick in Field Goal and Extra Point situations.
  2. The rule requiring disqualification of a player for two (limited type) Unsportsmanlike Conduct fouls has been made permanent and has been extended to include coaches and other bench personnel.
  3. A receiver running his route will now have the same “defenseless player” protection that previously was accorded those attempting or making a catch.
  4. It will now be illegal for an offensive player who was in motion to crack back on a defensive player in the zone between the tackles.
  5. If there are multiple fouls committed by the same team late in the game in an attempt to “drain” the clock, the officials can reset the clock and start it only on the snap.
  6. The 10 second run-off provisions that previously were limited to the last minute of each half have now been extended to the last two minutes of each half.
  7. The Overtime Period for all preseason and regular season games will now be 10 minutes long instead of the previous 15 minutes. (This may well lead to additional tie games although NFL statistics appear to indicate that the impact will be minor.)
  8. In an attempt to clarify the rule regarding the approach of a substitute to the huddle and his subsequent withdrawal without having participated in a play (as was correctly called by Tony Corrente in a game last year), the rule has been revised to indicate that the first such event will result in a warning while any subsequent events will still result in an Unsportsmanlike Conduct foul. (“If he approaches the huddle and communicates with a teammate, he is required to participate in at least one play before being withdrawn. After a warning, subsequent violations of this rule shall be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.”)
  9. If a defensive player, in the field of play, intercepts a pass or catches or recovers a fumble, backward pass, scrimmage kick, free kick, or fair catch kick, and his original momentum carries him into his end zone where the ball is declared dead in his team’s possession. The ball belongs to the defensive team at the spot where the player’s foot or other body part touched the ground to establish possession. If that spot is in the end zone, the result of the play is a touchback, even if the ball is not on, above, or beyond the goal line.

Previously, the determination was based on the location of the ball and in rare occasions, the ball might remain outside the end zone while the player was physically in the end zone.

  1. Finally we have the rule change that has probably drawn the most attention from the media and fans: The related to demonstrations by a player following a play or score.

The following is the entire rule; I have highlighted in bold the verbiage that was changed:

There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others: (a) Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made. (b) Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League. (c) Using baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams. (d) Any violent gesture, or an act that is sexually suggestive or offensive. (e) Prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player or multiple players. (f) Using any object as a prop, or possessing any foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform on the field or the sideline during the game, other than the football after a scoring play or change of possession.  (g) Unnecessary physical contact with a game official. (h) Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player.

Celebrations that involve multiple players or players “going to the ground” will now be allowed as long as they do not become “prolonged or excessive.” The officials will attempt to put the ball in play more quickly than in the past to limit the length of such celebrations.

I am told that clause (h) will be interpreted to include removal of a players helmet anywhere other than at or in the vicinity of the players bench area.

One of the Points of Emphasis this year will be that hits to the head area that are ruled “egregious” by the officiating crew will result in disqualification of the player delivering the blow. The league continues to attempt to take the use of the helmet out of the game and to protect players heads from significant blows.

An Administrative Rule Change of potential interest is that this year two players who are moved to injured reserve status may be designated for eventual return to active status as opposed to the one player who previously might be so designated.

One final note.

The NFL will attempt to reduce the number of commercial breaks in the game by eliminating a few such breaks in both halves. However, the existing breaks will be extended so the overall number of commercials will remain the same.

The result will be a greater opportunity to visit the kitchen or the bathroom during such game breaks and will also extend the period of no action for those sitting in the stands.