Thursday, March 22, 2012

Proposed 2012 NFL Rules Changes

The 2012 NFL off-season is in full swing after a flurry of free agent signings of the game's biggest names, such as Mario Williams, Randy Moss, and others changed their teams last week. This week certainly had its fair share of news. Yesterday saw the legend of Tim Tebow traded from the Broncos to the Jets (after Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos the day before) and also the Saints received one of the most severe punishments in the history of professional sports for its bounty (Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season as just part of it). Although these were the headline catching news, what cannot be missed was an important meeting regarding the upcoming NFL season. The Competition Committee for the National Football League met yesterday via conference call and proposed several rule changes, along with some made by the teams. These proposed rule changes were announced by the committee's chairman Rich McKay, the president of the Atlanta Falcons. Here is a look at the proposed rule changes:

1) Instant Replay Decisions Made by Booth
Proposed by the Buffalo Bills, this proposal would move authority from the referee to the booth official to make decisions on reviews for instant replay. The decision as to overturn or uphold an on-field call would no longer be made on the field, similar to college football. A tenant of the proposal could also end the challenge system, meaning that not only all reviews would be decided by the booth, but initiated by them too. Buffalo's reasoning  for this proposal is that they believe it would speed up the instant replay process.

While it is conceivable that replay review decisions made by the booth could reduce the time it takes for a review to take place, it could be an insignificant amount and also introduce other issues. Yes, time would be saved firing up the replay booth and having the referee go to the booth, but the time cut is largely insignificant. This especially holds true if the challenge system is abolished and all replays are initiated by the booth. There would be no limit on such reviews, likely seeing an increase, and easily taking up any time otherwise saved.

The replay system would be a radical change from its previous appearance, from 1986 to 1992, and its current system. If passed, authority on the decision of the game will be removed from the field. The referee and his crew have always had full authority of all decisions made on the field. This would remove such authority from the referee, which McKay notes is what the NFL has previously always desired. Along with removing the authority from the field, a vital role and authority is given to the replay official in the booth. Initiating review and confirming scoring plays are important roles, and having the final decision on such reviews is a drastic increase in authority for the replay official. The NFL would have to be assured all replay officials are just as competent in the rules and have the same level of judgement as its white hats do on the field, which is a big expectation. Additionally, it would be more difficult for the referee to relay information to the booth that his fellow crew members have given him that may be relevant to the play and the review. This could cause the same type of miscommunication that may have occurred during the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game this past season. Keeping the decision on the field, where the crew can directly communicate with the one making the decision, could prevent such event occurring in the NFL. Also, a coach can ask and receive an explanation of such a decision being made from the referee, but cannot from the replay official. Many believe this will cause a great deal of discussion, but seems to be the most unlikely to pass.

2) Automatic Booth Reviews Expanded For All Turnover Plays
Proposed by the Competition Committee itself, the proposal would would expand automatic booth reviews to include all plays on which a turnover occurs, in addition to all scoring plays. A challenge would not be needed (nor could be used) to review a play in which a turnover occurs. Just like a scoring play, before the ball can be made ready for play, the booth will either have to confirm the turnover or buzz the referee (or if the first proposal is enacted, make a decision themselves) to review the play. The committee's aim is to possibly save a team a challenge.

For the first time last year, the NFL gave authority to the replay booth to initiate review outside of the final two minutes of each half (and overtime). Not only did the booth have authority to initiate such review, they were required to do so for any scoring play. The reasoning was the NFL wanted to get these plays right, even though it would add time slightly to the game. Scoring plays are obviously most vital to the outcome of the game, and they wanted to save teams their challenges and prevent teams from rushing to kick an extra point to disallow the opposing team to challenge a touchdown. Turnovers are arguably the second most vital type of plays that effect the outcome of the game, so if automatic review of plays were to expand, it makes sense it would be for turnovers.

Such expansion comes with both pros and cons, though which is what depends on one's viewpoint. The most vital plays would be all subject to review, and conceivably all such plays will most likely be gotten right and have had fair review. On the other hand, this could further extend games by increasing the number of plays reviewed. The lack of the need for a challenge can be perceived as both good and bad. A team would not have to risk a challenge on such a vital play; and if  a team ran out of challenges, they would still have a play that hurt them reviewed. This means it is more likely the play will be ruled on correctly, but makes the challenge process moot. There are less plays to challenge and the strategy and challenge risk is significantly lessened. There is also the possibility that the booth may miss an aspect of the play that could cause reversal and confirm such play without ever paging the referee. The ultimate arbiter may never get a look at the play, which reversal would likely occur, like this past season in the Bears-Saints game because teams cannot challenge these plays.

3) Uniform Overtime Rule: Expand Postseason Overtime to Regular Season
Proposed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the proposal would expand the 2010 overtime rule change for the postseason to apply to the regular season as well. The postseason overtime change did not see its debut until last postseason in a wildcard game between the Steelers and Broncos, which did not come into effect anyways.  And although as McKay noted that 27 of the last 32 regular season overtime games saw both teams possess the ball, the reasoning behind the proposal is to create uniformity and that teams could be prepared, rather than playing with a different set of rules in the postseason.

Such a rule change would create uniformity for players, coaches and officials alike for both the regular season and postseason. It could prevent confusion and create normalcy with one set of overtime rules that all can get accustomed to. Better yet, it could save us all from a lengthy, lawyerly explanation prior the start of a  postseason overtime period (though some of us did enjoy Ed Hochuli's rules explanation). Even though only two postseason overtime games have occurred since the rule change, and neither have utilized its rule change, it is conceivable that it would eventually be utilized if it were expanded to the regular season. Though, in all but five of the last 32 regular season overtime games both teams had possession of the ball and the rule change will be not too commonly utilized, the change will not likely hurt.

4) Too Many Men on the Field Changed from a Live Ball to a Dead Ball Penalty
Proposed by the Competition Committee, the proposal would change the enforcement of a too many men on the field penalty from a live ball foul to a dead ball foul. Currently, a too many men on the field penalty (sans 12 players in the offensive huddle) does not kill the play. A flag will be thrown, but the play allowed to continue and a five-yard penalty enforced (if accepted). The change would move toward the college rule and NFHS rule that would immediately kill the play prior to the snap if too many men are noticed on the field.

Making the too many men on the field penalty, under Rule 5, a dead ball foul would be a significant change in enforcement of the penalty. If changed, the penalty would be treated just as if there were too many men in the huddle by immediately making the ball dead. It would no longer give the offense the opportunity to run a "free play" against a defense that commits such a foul. That aspect would seem to hurt the offense by taking away that "free play." However, some of the reasoning behind such a change is the fact that it is a time killer in a way. An extra man on the field is advantageous for the defense, and likely to prevent the offense from a positive play, causing them to accept the penalty. Even with the accepted penalty, time comes off the clock. In a close, late game it could seemingly benefit the defense, as some point to this year's Super Bowl as such a case. The Giants were flagged for such a penalty toward the end of the game against the Patriots. Even though the Patriots gained five positive yards on the play, they could have been saved important seconds in the game's final moments. Though, time preservation is a much more rare scenario and likely less beneficial than the "free play."

5) Horse Collar Tackle of Quarterback in Pocket Exemption Abolished
Proposed by the Steelers as well, the proposal would no longer allow for a horse collar tackle of the quarterback in the pocket to be legal. Such action by the defense, if passed, would be penalized as any other horse collar tackle would be, 15 yards and an automatic first down. This would be another move for the NFL to increase the safety of the play and an attempt to cut down on injuries by protecting the quarterback further.

If the proposal goes through, there would be no instance in which the horse collar tackle would be legal. Any tackle meeting the definition of a horse collar would be penalized with no exceptions. The defense is further restricted in their actions by not being able to take the quarterback down with such a tackle, even though the currently legal horse collar tackle typically occurs in a clustered area rather than out in the open. On the other hand, extra protection is given to the quarterback and it uniformly makes the horse collar tackle illegal. It also eases the burden on the officials, as they no longer have to determine whether the quarterback was in the pocket or not. If the officials see a horse collar tackle occur, they know immediately it is illegal and it will be penalized with a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down. The rule increases safety and makes application of the rule easier, but does further handcuff the defense.

These rules change proposals are also met with bylaw change proposals, such as: moving back the trade deadline to Week 8, increase the preseason roster size, allow for an injured reserved player to return during the season, and creating a roster exemption for a concussed player.

These proposals will need 24 of 32 (2/3rds) teams approval to be enacted. These proposals are only that until the owners vote on them next week at the spring meetings in Palm Beach, Florida.

Source: NFL Competition Committee proposing to owners changes to instant replay, injured reserve


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