Buffalo Bills fans were pretty irate at the time when Cody Ford was called for an illegal blindside block against the Houston Texans in the team’s 2019 season Wild Card game. This weekend many of us have been angry again when the NFL said it wasn’t illegal after all with a new officiating video. Except, that’s not really what they said. Let’s pump the brakes on the NFL’s “confession.”
What’s in a rule?
Before we get into the NFL’s officiating video that shows Ford’s block as a legal one, let’s talk about what makes a rule. As a brief overview you can think of them as containing three parts.
The rule itself: This is what should immediately come to mind. What’s written in the rule book, regulation, etc.
Guidance and clarification: Very few rules are perfectly written. When there’s ambiguity in a rule, the governing body that created the rule is nearly always given authority to issue clarifying guidance. When vested with that authority, the guidance carries the same weight as the rule itself.
Rule of the shop: In absence of guidance to clarify those ambiguities, whatever becomes the customary interpretation or usage of the rule can become part of the rule itself.
The Blindside Block rule, what changed?
The rule itself: So far this has not changed and, to my knowledge, it wasn’t part of the proposals that have been made public. If you want a good explanation of the rule, of course I wrote something about it. Because there wasn’t a change here, it’s logical to think that the NFL is retroactively saying that Ford’s block is legal. Essentially, if the rule hasn’t changed since the 2019 season and they’re saying it’s legal now, it should have been legal then, right? Not so fast.
Guidance and clarification: If you watched the video you may have noticed that the end points you toward the NFL Operations site. Wanna know what that site is for? Guidance and clarification of the rules. This is an official guide for the NFL to clear up those gray areas. The video rule book is chock full of examples of what they mean when a rule contains any subjective wording. Please note; guidance like this carries the same weight as the rule.
It’s important to note that guidance on this DID change. In 2019 there was a different video that had examples very much like Ford’s. The NFL removed it, which is a shame, but luckily I created a GIF with one of the examples comparing it to Ford’s.
In other words, the video everyone has been jumping on is replacing the one from 2019. Put in the most direct terms, this means the rule HAS changed. The new video provides clarification on forcible and adds language about ability to defend oneself, which didn’t exist originally.
The rule of the shop: But wait, they still said his wasn’t forcible enough to warrant a penalty right? Yes, but they’re saying this now. In 2019 the illegal examples showed similar force in many instances. Further, when examining this penalty after the season I backtracked a fair few of these flags and many of those had similar levels of force to Ford’s as well. That means the rule of the shop or custom was that actions like Ford’s were being called illegal then.
The video never says “We called this wrong.” What the video is saying is “from this point forward this wouldn’t be called illegal.” The video is changing the guidance and rule of the shop, two of the three elements that make a rule. That does mean the video has changed the rule for 2021.
Further, let me ask you this. If you’re looking to change a rule in a way that means something that used to be illegal is now acceptable, what better way to do that than to show an example of one of those formerly illegal actions? The NFL hasn’t come out and said this either, but to me the better interpretation is that they used Ford’s block not to say “we called it wrong then” but rather to say “this used to be illegal but won’t be any longer.”
Let’s use an example to draw a parallel. Your village changes it’s speed limit from 30 mph to 35 mph this year. Does it mean that someone going 35 mph last year wasn’t speeding? Now some rule/law revisions do expunge old records like NY is poised to do with marijuana law changes. Unless that’s explicitly stated though that’s not the case and it’s not explicitly stated.
Put simply, the penalty on Cody Ford was called consistent to how it had been in 2019 and the video the NFL just released doesn’t change that ruling.
Now if they could explain the start of the second half better...