NFL Makes Rule Changes for 2021

The league passed new rules proposals today.

  • Player number restrictions were massively relaxed. Basically, anybody who isn't an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman can now wear any number from 1-49, plus the numbers they could wear previously (80s for wide receivers and tight ends, 50s and 90s for linebackers). This is going to make things fun for players who can bring their numbers from college to the pros. It's going to be annoying for Football Outsiders since we tend to store players with play-by-play IDs that include number, and now those will be harder to filter by position.
  • A Chicago proposal passed that ensures the enforcement of all accepted penalties during extra point/two-point conversion tries (explained here).
  • A Rams proposal passed that makes it a loss of down to throw a second forward pass on the same down.
  • The receiving team on kickoffs will be limited to nine players in the "setup zone" in an attempt to make recovering onside kicks more likely.
  • There will be no overtime during the preseason.

The infamous "fourth-and-15" onside kick proposal made by the Philadelphia Eagles was officially tabled for later, along with a Buffalo proposal to move the hiring cycle for new coaches back until after the playoffs. In addition, no changes were made to overtime, such as Baltimore's suggestion of the "spot and choose" concept.

View Full Article


19 comments, Last at 28 Apr 2021, 2:00am

1 I kind of like onside kick…

I kind of like onside kick drama. Yes it injects more randomness into the game but its certainly more fun that way!

2 I like all these changes …

I like all these changes (and not changes).  Don't really care about the uniform numbers, though it was kind of nice to see a number and know what position it played.  The Bears' and Rams' changes just seem like cleaning up loopholes left from previous rules and are likely to almost never affect the game.  Preseason overtime is just dumb.

I do like the idea of making on-side recovery more likely.  And while I wasn't necessarily opposed to the 4th and 15 approach, I had deep concerns about it because of the way penalties massively favor the "offense"... a team can score a TD and then is just one ticky-tack defensive holding or illegal contact penalty away from retaining possession.

I oppose the increasingly more complex and exotic proposals to "fix" overtime like the Baltimore proposal, which means to  most people to eliminate the degree to which the winner depends on the coin toss.  I didn't even like it when they eliminated sudden death except by 6.  You know how to make the winner in overtime not depend on the coin toss?  Eliminate coin toss.  Go to "home team starts overtime with possession".  Or possibly "whoever didn't start the 2nd half with possession starts OT with possession" and go back to sudden death. The team that knows it will not start OT with possession will try like crazy to win in regulation!  And there's no randomness at all.

4 Eliminate coin toss. Yes!…

Eliminate coin toss.

Yes! Honestly I've long wanted them to just treat end-of-4th-and-tied like a quarter break - switch goals and carry on. With pure sudden death thereafter. Arguments about "equal opportunity" or whatnot go out the window as long as onside kicks are a thing anyway. I'm sure the powers that be want to "maintain excitement" at the end or somesuch, but that went out the window when the first team started "playing for overtime". No gimmicks, just play.

it was kind of nice to see a number and know what position it played.

This was really nice, and as a grumpy old man who often yells at clouds, I really hate that this is slowly but surely going away. It made the game much easier to explain to new fans ("See the guys in the '70s? They're trying to stop the guys in the '90s from tackling #4."), and there was a pleasant sort of order to everything.

I'm not really sure what the League is gaining by doing away with it, other than it makes the younger players happy - but then you'd think they'd include it in CBA negotiations...


5 Makes comebacks harder

That approach to overtime makes comebacks harder, doesn't it? It means that a trailing team not only has to level the scores, but then starts overtime at a disadvantage too. So a 7-point lead is more than a 7-point lead: it's a lead and an advantage in the subsequent tiebreaker.

I have never understood the resistance in American football to even-handed overtime rules of one type or another. It happens so rarely, and it's so important when it does (esp in playoffs) - why not do it properly?

7 Gives a massive advantage

The team with a 7-point lead then knows that if they concede either at the end of regulation or shortly before, they will have the ball and effectively unlimited time to score the winning points (either within the 4th quarter or in overtime).

Teams team scoring a catch-up TD late in the 4th quarter might well end up going for 2, on the basis that kicking the XP to level the scores leaves them in a weak position


12 I was responding to the "end…

I was responding to the "end-of-4th-and-tied like a quarter break - switch goals and carry on" part.

That means that if you are tied and have the ball, you can take your sweet sweet time, because you know that you can carry on in overtime. 

3 So

they pass the Rams rule but not the waiting for HC hires? 


At least the numbers one passed. 

8 Abolish Overtime

I get why we have this push towards sudden death OT; the more playtime you incur, the higher the risk of injury. So here's my modest proposal: get rid of overtime, except for the playoffs. There's no reason that a game HAS to end with a victor in the regular season. If anything, ties make December playoff scenarios more fun. 

Then, in the playoffs, just play an extra period. The injury argument is mitigated by lower OT frequency. Everyone wins. Except I guess the teams that have more ties in the regular season, but hey, at least they don't lose, right?

10 I think this makes sense but…

In reply to by jimbohead

I think this makes sense but OT breeds drama and extended viewership. I don't know what potential revenue loss would be but remember that 2013 Pats Broncos game that went into double OT? I bet NBC pocked a fair chunk of change off of that. 

14 The numbers thing is a…

The numbers thing is a little weird and a little hypocritical. We recently added a rule to prevent certain formations based solely on a player’s uniform number. Why? Because the number was potentially confusing to some weak-minded coaches. And yet here we are, making numbers more confusing.

Personally, I’d get rid of number restrictions entirely, and instead have eligible players wear bright, contrasting wristbands or something like that. No more need to “report as eligible”, refs pointing out players to the defense, etc. Just put on the wrist band and line up accordingly.

The numbers would no longer help QBs read the defense. But it would be simple, consistent, easy to officiate, and easy for teams to do. And anything that allows more fun formations, two-way players, and innovation in play design is a good thing.

15 Eligibility is a rules thing…

Eligibility is a rules thing, but numbers apparently help blocking assignments since you get a rough idea of what a player's likely defensive role is.

That can be gamed, obviously, but not entirely: position assignments relate to salaries, so most players wouldn't be too happy.

PFT had a snarky comment about how linemen/QBs should know everyone on the defense by number, but that's obviously nuts (and impossible if a guy gets forced into action).

16 I agree that loosening the…

I agree that loosening the restrictions on numbers makes blocking assignments harder. I’m okay with that. But I do understand people who worry that it will make for sloppier blocking.

It just seems silly to loosen number restrictions with one hand, while arbitrarily restricting where a player can line up based solely on their number with the other hand. It’s so ad hoc. 

The idea of an ‘eligibility wristband’ was just a way to make it obvious who is eligible without relying on their number or complicated ‘report eligible’ requirements and announcements. Having that way to indicate eligibility would open the door to having no number requirements whatsoever, removing something that has always seemed arbitrary and unnecessary to me.

17 I mean, I don't get why you…

I mean, I don't get why you can't just double the number set by adding a 1.

Or you could *really* piss off Aaron and other parsers by going to pseudo-hex by letting the last digit go to, say, F. But that's overly math-y of me.