During every offseason, the NFL takes some time for self-reflection. Part of this process is a look at the rules that govern the game we love. Recommendations can come from teams (like they did from the Buffalo Bills this year), the competition committee, and more. After a review, some are adopted and some aren’t. While a proposal to make touchbacks on punts bring the ball to the 25 rather than the 20 is fun, that’s one that didn’t make it into the books this year (but keep an eye on this). Let’s cover the ones that are now the law of the land, and expand a few items that might come up this year. You can check out the full release here.
The following will be the changes on the field and, for most of us, the more intriguing rules changes. Here’s where most of my personal thoughts are going to be, but if there’s something I missed, ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to sort it out.
- There’ll be some real “zeroes” on the field this year. Proposed by the Philadelphia Eagles, the number “0” is now eligible to be used on jerseys. You won’t see it on linemen on either side of the ball but all other players can grab this. This rule also changed what numbers punters and kickers can use. Formerly limited to the same numbers as QBs (0-19), these two specialist positions can now wear anything from 0-49, or 90-99.
- Play clock change following replay reversals. This one was intended to offer consistency in how the play clock is set after a stoppage. The easy version is that after a play was reviewed AND reversed, it used to be the clock would be reset to 25 seconds. Now it’ll be 40 seconds. Other rules can change this, but that’s the gist.
- Failed Fourth-Down attempts get “booth review” treatment. This rule expands the Replay Official’s authority and gives them (or the Senior VP of Officiating/Designee) the ability to review a failed fourth-down attempt. I do expect this one to be used on a semi-routine basis. The idea is to speed up game flow by allowing these to head right to the booth for a look.
- Definition of “launch” expanded to include leaving the ground with only one foot. For crackback blocks and hits against players in a defenseless posture, one of the prohibited acts was launching. This now includes leaving the ground with one OR both feet, traveling in an upward trajectory, AND making forcible contact with the helmet. Just to be clear this is not a helmet-to-helmet rule as the NFL has no such thing. You can be theoretically called for this if you forcibly hit the opponent’s pinkie finger with your helmet during a launch.
- Tripping is now a personal foul. I don’t know if this was actually made due to some “shenanigans” from New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, but tripping is now a personal foul. Tripping was its own rule, penalized by a loss of ten yards and an automatic first down if committed by the defense. The yardage is now 15, the automatic first down remains the same, and players can now be disqualified for flagrant violations. We’ll get at least two chances to see this as Mac Jones has been known to try this from time to time.
- Illegal handoffs are now more illegal. I can’t actually recall this happening, but it’s illegal to hand the ball forward to another player unless it’s behind the line of scrimmage AND the player is considered eligible. If it’s to an ineligible player or it’s beyond the line of scrimmage a forward hand off is illegal. The rule makes the language more consistent to similar rules and makes the enforcement from the spot of the foul in all circumstances. If you’re wondering, the penalty is five yards and a loss of down.
- Illegal kicking is also now more illegal. Very similar to the last one. Punting, drop kicks, or kicks beyond the line of scrimmage used to be a loss of 10 yards. Now they’re a loss of five yards and a loss of down. I believe that, in effect, this negates a “redo” in many cases as most of these would be occurring on fourth downs.
- Offense can no longer extend a half via penalty (in niche scenarios). The short version here is that on most double fouls (aka “offsetting penalties”) the down would be replayed. On the last play of a half this gives the offense a bit of an edge as they get an untimed down. In some situations now the half will just end.
- Use of helmet simplified. Sort of. It used to be that using the helmet to “butt,” “ram,” or “spear” an opponent was in the unnecessary roughness section. There’s actually a section of rules called “impermissible use of the helmet” — which is now where that language resides. The actions themselves do not appear to have changed.
- Slight change to waiver claims. For waived players, there’s a 24-hour claim period, unless the player is waived on Friday or Saturday — then other teams have until Monday at 4 p.m. Eastern New York time to submit a claim. This is now true for the entire season. Prior to the rule change, the final regular-season week and the postseason had a hard 24-hour rule.
- Another slight change to waiver claims. As you likely knew already, if multiple teams submitted a waiver claim on a player, the contract/player went to the team with the worse record. What if they had the same record? That was decided by coin flip basically. Now strength of victory will be used to break a tie.
- A little extra grace for postseason rosters. There are some limited rules to freezing rosters for teams competing in the playoffs. The “freeze” used to go into effect after the final regular-season game. Now the freeze starts at 4 p.m. Eastern New York time the Wednesday after the regular season ends. The goal is to provide a little more roster flexibility.
- Roster transaction deadlines more consistent. This one was proposed by Buffalo. Teams have deadlines to submit roster transactions before games. The postseason used to have slightly different rules than the regular season. Thanks to the Bills, the postseason now follows the regular-season rules.
- More players to be listed on injury report. Players who were on the exempt or reserve list and practicing were not required to be on the practice report or game status report. Now they are.
- One cut down day after preseason. Buffalo and a slew of other teams proposed this change. Preseason used to have staggered cut down dates, eventually hitting the 53-player team by the close of preseason. Starting this year it’ll be a cliff. Teams can have their full 90-player roster through the entire preseason and will need to cut to 53 by the Tuesday following the final preseason game (August 29 this year). I would expect that for some teams (maybe even Buffalo) that’ll mean an entire final game of backups.