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2021 NFL Rulebook changes to keep an eye on

This should be a riveting piece...

Every year during the NFL season I end up with a handful of articles that include longwinded explanations on the nuances of the NFL rulebook. Well this year’s going to be different! I’m going to start the longwinded explanations BEFORE the season. We’ll begin the year’s longwinded rants naturally enough by discussing the rule changes that will apply to the 2021 season and, of course, the Buffalo Bills and those 31 other teams.


Points of Emphasis

By now you’ve likely heard that taunting will be changed for the upcoming season, and perhaps heard jokes about how Josh Allen will become the most penalized player in the league. The second part might be true, but the first is not. Well not entirely anyway. The rule will stay the same in terms of wording, which is “Using baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.”

That wording is pretty vague. In addition to editing the rulebook itself, the league can also clarify the intent of rules by creating points of emphasis. These are communicated to teams and officials alike, usually with video or other examples to illustrate. Essentially, a point of emphasis serves to clarify ambiguous wording like the taunting rule, and/or give notice to teams and players if something may be called more strictly going forward.

For the record, the expectation is that taunting will be called more strictly. Especially if you consider this quote from the NFL’s guidance video:

Game officials have been instructed to strictly enforce the taunting rules. And players and coaches are reminded that two taunting penalties committed by an individual player will result in automatic disqualification.

The league has also indicated they will continue to emphasize lowering the head and using the helmet to initiate contact.

Rules Changes

Personally, I do consider points of emphasis to be rules changes, but these are the ones that have led to an edited rulebook. Let’s start with some easy ones:

If you haven’t heard by now, some positions can now wear a different set of numbers. Most notably defensive backs can now wear anything from 1 to 49. There are a few other tweaks in there as well if you’re interested.

No more overtime in preseason. No one is sad about this.

Illegal forward passes like the Tennessee Titans seem to be fond of were made a bit more consistent. Passes thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage have resulted in a loss of down, but ones where two passes were thrown (ex: QB catches a deflection and tries again) or the ball comes back behind the line did not result in a loss of down. Now they do.

For kickoff formations, during a free kick things are getting pretty proscribed. The league created what’s called the “setup zone” for the receiving team. This zone starts ten yards away from where the ball is teed, and 25 yards away for a 15-yard zone. The league used to require at least eight players here, with no maximum number set. Now the maximum is set at nine players in this zone.

Here’s a weird one. On “try” downs (XP or 2-point conversion attempts), a penalty can no longer negate a prior penalty. Sometimes a defensive penalty allows the team on offense to swap the thing they want to do (like “Hey, now I wanna try the 2-pt”). In 2021 a previous penalty would still apply. Theoretically it’d be something like this: Team A (offense) is trying an XP but commits a false start. Before they can attempt again, Team B is guilty of being offside. It used to be Team A could change their mind, and go for two at the one-yard line. Now, they’d count the original false start and the 2-pt try would be from the usual two-yard line.

On-field officials now have more access to guidance from the replay booth or the team in New York. In the simplest terms, officials who aren’t on the field are limited in what information they are allowed to provide and what things they can help “rule on.” The list was expanded to allow more leeway when there is clear video evidence of certain events on the field. These officials can now weigh in on:

  • Possession of the ball
  • If a pass was complete or intercepted
  • If a player touches a loose ball or any of the exterior lines (boundaries, end lines, goal lines)
  • Location of a ball or player
  • If a player is down by contact. However, this only applies if the ruling on the field was that the player was NOT down by contact
  • Coach’s challenges will still be allowed for all of the above

In addition to the tackle box definition, the league has added a new term; the “Tight End Box.” This area extends two yards beyond the “normal” tackle position on either side and reaches five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage. This area exists even after the ball leaves the zone. This was created because...

Low blocks are prohibited outside this zone by EITHER team. The video released by the NFL seems to suggest we shouldn’t be seeing guys diving at each other’s legs unless it’s in close-line play. Runners can still go low to avoid contact (even if it causes contact), and players can still tackle the ball carrier low.