Six proposed rule changes were presented to the 32 teams at the annual meeting this year, and all passed. The most famous and controversial of these was the new personal foul for any player leading with his head, but the other changes will also play an important role in the upcoming season.
No. 1: Red Flags for Some, Miniature Hochuli Bobbleheads for Others (15-9-1)
This changes the rules on interaction between "booth reviewable" plays (scoring plays, turnovers, muffed scrimmage kick recovered by the kicking team) and "challengeable" plays (everything else). Under the new rule, the officials are not barred from reviewing a booth reviewable play when a coach has illegally attempted to challenge. The penalty for initiating a challenge has been severely neutered, from penalizing challenges "when a team is prohibited from doing so" to "when a team has exhausted its timeouts." When paired with new language penalizing a time out for initiating a challenge "when it is not permitted to do so," the new scheme for illegal challenges is:
- Coach throws challenge flag on booth reviewable play.
- If the team has a timeout left, that timeout is charged. The play is still reviewed.
- If the team has no timeouts left, the team is charged with a 15-yard penalty.
The competition committee is likely correct that the old penalties were too harsh. On the other hand, this change provides another method for head coaches to attempt to game the system. I expect a fair number of wasted timeouts in 2013 when coaches, faced with a booth review situation, throw a flag so they can jaw at the referee in the hope of the booth hitting the buzzer during the delay.
No. 2: Blocking and Contact on Field Goals and Try Kicks(9-1-3-b, 12-2-7-10)
Most outlets are reporting this change primarily as banning "overloaded" lines on try kicks and field goals. It does -- no more than six players may be on either side of the snapper at the time of the snap -- but it now bans players not on the line of scrimmage from pushing players on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation. I believe the latter change is far more significant, as linebackers and secondary players can no longer attempt to ram a defensive lineman into the offensive formation. This rule is unique in that it is the only unnecessary roughness penalty for contact with a teammate.
Additionally, the snapper on a field goal or try kick is now a defenseless player for purposes of unnecessary roughness, expanding the old rules against low contact with the snapper. For instance, helmet to helmet contact with a snapper who is in the process of snapping would not draw a penalty.
No. 3: The Tuck Rule Abolished (8-1-1)
This one is simple enough. The language has been changed to classify a passer's attempt to bring the football back toward the body after a forward motion as a fumble, rather than a forward pass. This makes enforcement of the forward pass rule much less subjective; absent force provided by another player affecting the passer, when the passer's forward motion ends, so does his attempt to throw the pass. After that attempt is completed, the usual rules for fumbling apply.
No. 4: New Numbers for Tight Ends and H-Backs (5-1-2-f)
H-back is now a recognized position in the formation. In recognition of the current prevalence of h-backs and tight ends, the acceptable numbers for those positions are now 40-49 and 80-89. This seems to be administrative, however, since 40-49 is part of the running back bloc, so there was no concern over a player being ineligible by number while lined up at the eligible tight end position.
No. 5: No More Legal Peel-Back Blocks (12-2-4)
A "peel-back" was defined as a player, who at the snap was in the tackle box, leaving the tackle box and then block low toward his own goal line. Since low blocks of this kind were legal between the tackles, a not-uncommon tactic of linemen who were beat was to dive low at the side of a defensive lineman (not a linebacker, a key distinction) who had passed the blocker by. This is another chip off the penumbral "free blocking" privileges enjoyed by linemen. This rule change may not have a significant effect on the play this year, but there is a distinct possibility the league is laying the groundwork for more significant blocking changes within the tackles, such as enforcing penalties for blocking in the back.
No. 6: Player Leading with the Crown of the Helmet (12-2-8)
This is by far the most controversial of this year's changes. Leading with the crown of the helmet is now personal foul by either the offense or the defense. Contact must be initiated with the crown of the helmet outside the tackle box to draw a foul. The tackle box is the space between the tackles back to the offense's goal line, but also includes the line of scrimmage extended (also used for free blocking rules), which reaches past the line of scrimmage three yards into the defense. As with all rules involving the tackle box, the box itself ceases to exist after the ball has been moved in a player's possession or by a loose ball outside of the box, so a player could not run outside, cut back in and lead with the crown of his helmet attempting to run up the middle.
While this rule change is laudable, it does not seem to be well-considered. The most pressing issue is the initiation requirement. This mirrors the rules against leading with the helmet against a defenseless player, but in practice will be quite different. With a defenseless player, it is clear how and when contact is initiated. When both players are prohibited from leading with the crown of their helmet, initiation is far murkier; the difference between a player attempting a tackle by leading with his helmet and a player whose head happens to be down when he comes into contact with a runner or blocker is extremely fine and will be nearly impossible to ascertain in real time whether the defender's contact was "forcible" (and therefore a penalty) or not. This will lead to inconsistent enforcement, and NFL fans are nothing if not vocal about their feelings regarding inconsistent penalty enforcement.
The initiation issue is thrown into stark relief when applying the "clean hands" rule for double fouls before the change of possession (14-3-2). Imagine a scenario where a ball carrier initiates contact with the crown of his helmet against the crown of a defender's helmet. The ball is loose and recovered by the defense. If the responsible official determines that the defender's contact was forceful, the turnover is disregarded and the down is replayed as a double foul. I am a great advocate of more subjectivity and latitude for officials on the field, but this is simply an impossible situation to administer fairly.
Several states' high school associations have enacted similar rules for ball carriers. While I do not have any real scientific data, as far as I can gather, and in my personal experience, these rules are completely ineffective due to their difficult enforcement. This is another example of a well-meaning rule enacted by the league in an attempt to safeguard the players that attempts to engineer gameplay rather than address the root problem: in the modern NFL, the helmet is a weapon. The uncertainty of enforcement will embolden players such as Matt Forte, who is already publicly discussing socking away cash to pay for eventual fines. Forte isn't expressing his joy at the risk of spinal compression or concussion. His outrage at the rule change is purely over the loss of a perceived advantage, one players will cling to as long as they possibly can.