Ask the Official: A Breakdown of the New Rules and Points of Emphasis

Another football season is upon us and with it comes the inevitable new rules and new interpretations of old ones.

Probably the number one rule change is an attempt to provide clarification to the “what is a catch” situation. However, the result is a replacement of a rule that was well understood, at least by the officials, with one that may be harder to officiate and result in more confusion.

Gone is the requirement that a receiver must maintain complete and constant possession of the ball when he goes to the ground for a pass to be complete. The new wording is as follows:

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds: (a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and (b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and (c) after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.

Notes: (1) Movement of the ball does not automatically result in loss of control. (2) If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds.”

The keys here are that movement of the ball, however slight, no longer means that control has been lost and that any slight bobble when he touches the ground after performing “any act common to the game” will not result in an incomplete pass.

However, if the receiver was not touched by a defender when he goes to the ground and then loses possession, which would have been an incomplete pass in the past, it could now be called a fumble recoverable by the opponent or should the ball bounce into and out of the end zone, it will be a touchback.

It also means that it will be up to the officials to determine in real time whether the receiver performed any of the acts “common to the game” or even if he did not, did he possess the ball “long enough to do so.”

Probably the second most controversial rule change is that it will now be a foul if any player, on offense or defense “lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet [anywhere] against an opponent.”

There are certain criteria associated with the manner in which such contact may or may not be made, primarily whether the initiator of the contact basically lines up his opponent and/or whether there was a real opportunity for the helmet user to avoid such contact but the days of a runner “drilling” a defender in an attempt to run over him or of a defender attempting to blast an opponent in an attempt to dislodge the ball are over.

The rule applies to contact anywhere on the opponents body, not just the shoulders and above so it can be expected that players will make a greater effort to hit with their shoulders or to arm tackle, both of which will probably result in more missed tackles.

Although there are complaints that the game is being watered down and it is no longer a “a man’s game,” the NFL is seeking to protect the long term health of the players. This will probably result in a major change in the manner of which the game is played on all levels but it is probably necessary if the game is to continue to be played at all.

It is worth noting that any such contact that is deemed egregious will (or at least can) result in an ejection of the player initiating the contact. Any decision to eject a player by the field officials will be reviewed in real time by the NFL office before action continues. Also, the NFL office may instruct the on-field officials to eject a player even if the on-field officials did not deem his actions to be egregious.

I would suspect that this rule will be called extremely closely during the preseason to give the players a chance to adjust and then we might see a slight relaxing as the teams move into the regular season.

A third change (and another one aimed at player safety) will be noted on the initial kick-off and all subsequent free kick plays. In an attempt to reduce the level of contact on such plays, the kicking team players will now be required to line up within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage versus the 5 yards allowed previously. In addition, 5 players must be on each side of the kicker and they must be spaced further apart than previously.

This will have a major impact in the manner which the kicking team lines up for and attempts onside kicks. For the receivers, 8 players must be within 15 yards of their restraining line meaning that only 3 players will be deep to receive the kick. This may result in an increase in pooch kicks to the open areas in the field.

Further, no wedge blacking (i.e., 2 or more players simultaneously blocking an opponent) will be allowed further reducing the level of contact on the play. Personally, I suspect that these new rules will result in more holding, block in the back and offside penalties, but it is probably preferential to elimination of the free kick plays all together as has been threatened by the league.

Another change to the rules is that a player in possession of the ball who momentarily loses possession but who then immediately regains possession will not be deemed to have fumbled the ball and as a result will not be required to re-perform all of the requirements necessary to demonstrate possession.

This change only applies to situations where the player has clear possession of the ball (i.e., meets all of the requirements noted above) and then has a momentary loss before regaining possession. This change resulted in part from a play by a Jets player last season where a touchdown was correctly overturned.

Some other noticeable changes include the fact that there will be four new Referees/White Hats this season along with eight other new officials. Gone are Ed Hochuli, Gene Steratore, Terry McAuley and Jeff Triplette, four of the most senior and some of the best Referees in the game.

Replacing them will be Alex Kemp, Sean Hochuli (Ed’s son), Shawn Smith and Clay Martin. Although all of these gentlemen have extensive experience on the NCAA level at the Referee position as well has significant NFL experience, any time you have that much turnover at the Referee position, it takes some time for crews to jell.

Also of note, all decisions on challenged plays will be made by the NFL office (with some minimal input from the Referee). Although this practice has been on-going for the past few years, this rules change formalizes the responsibility. Whether this change results in clearer and quicker (and more accurate) decisions, is yet to be seen.

Finally, runners (usually the QB) may now give themselves up by sliding or diving to the ground. It must be clear that the runner is in fact “giving himself up” and making no further attempt to advance the ball. In either event the ball will be placed at the spot where the runner is deemed to have begun his give up.

I suspect that this rule was put in place because certain QB’s demonstrated that they did not know how to slide and this change is designed to afford them protection no matter how awkwardly they go to the ground. This change will have no impact on plays where the player in possession is attempting to advance the ball and gain additional yardage.