Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Aug 2011

Blogging the NFL Rule Book: 2011 Changes

Courtesy of FO reader Travis, here is a complete list of all the major rule changes to the NFL rules this offseason. I sure hope chartreuse is an acceptable shade of green for the grass!

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 19 Aug 2011

51 comments, Last at 22 Aug 2011, 4:51pm by roguerouge


by TADontAsk (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:02am

Of all the changes, I think I've heard the most talk about the kick-off from the 35 yard line. There have been a lot of complaints about the lack of returns, and Belichick went as far as saying the league is trying to get rid of kickoffs entirely.

What I haven't heard anyone mention, is didn't they kick-off from the 35 not too long ago? I vaguely remember them moving the kickoffs back in the mid-90's to increase offense. I looked it up, and I believe the year was 1994. I was 12 years old. How do I remember something that Belichick and others don't seem to? This isn't a "new" rule, it's just going back to an old rule. No one complained (I'm assuming) about it then.

by JasonK :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:13am

Kickoffs were moved back in the '90s because placekickers were getting too good and kicking lots of touchbacks. Moving the KO location back 5 yards was essentially an adaptation to restore KO returns to being the exciting and important plays that they used to be back when kickers weren't so good.

But kickers have only gotten better since then. So, in some ways, going back to the 35 is a more radical change than the move to the 30 was.

by Tybalt the Greenish (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:04am

Why are they moving the kickoff line forward? Isn't a kickoff touchback the most boring play in football? Do we need more of these?

by Anonymous221 (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:08am

kickoff returns are the most dangerous play in football. They want fewer of them.

by RichC (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:19am

Has anyone actually done any research that indicates this? If so, I haven't seen it.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:23am

They have. It's discussed in the NFL concussions series in Neurotrauma that started in 2003. It's the 3rd or 4th in the series, I think. The NCAA sports injury epidemiology charting indicates some similar things as well.

by Led :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 1:09pm

Interestingly, against Houston the Jets sort of popped up every KO so it landed at the goal line or inside the 5 and then covered. They held Houston inside the 20 on 4 of the 5 KOs, and on the fifth they tackled the returner on about the 22 or 23 yard line. I don't know if they'll continue that strategy, but it was effective that night. It also shows that teams may not necessarily elect to go for the touchback.

by Drunkmonkey :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 3:09pm

I'm pretty sure most teams that have kickers that can get it up high will attempt this. I've heard that this is going to be a problem, because not only are you taking away the kickoff return, now you force teams to start so deep in their own territory that it will hamper their offense, making more teams conservative in their own redzone, and making football overall more boring. I don't like this because I can see it turning into "Team A scores, kicks off to Team B, but the ball is downed around the 5 yard-line, and Team B goes 3 and out. Having to punt from just inside the back of the endzone, Team B only gets the ball to about their own 40, and now Team A is about to score again."

That feels like make-take it street ball to me.

by Lance :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 3:46pm

I don't get the antagonism against touchbacks. The argument is that without them, we are exposed to all sorts of exciting plays. The reality, though, is that run-backs are rarely very exciting. The league average in run backs for 2010 was somewhere around 0.7 per year, with a median of 1. Some teams' long run-back for the year weren't even 50 yards.

Instead, what you mostly saw in 2010 (and in preceding years) were one or two touchbacks a game (the numbers vary wildly, only 1.2% of TB's kicks going for touchback, but fully 46.1% of BAL's doing the same; the median was 15.4% of NO's kicks), and then a lot of the guy getting the ball at the 4 or 5, and run it back about 20 yards. You also saw the frustrating play where the guy gets it in the end zone, runs it out, and is slammed at the 15.

Either way, I don't feel robbed when I see a touchback and have never heard anyone after a game say something to the effect of "it was OK, but I would have preferred it if we'd seen a few more run-backs on those kick-offs." I've argued elsewhere that a sport's popularity has virtually nothing to do with these "micro-mechanics" of the game and tweaking them (e.g. changing the facemask rule, or moving the kick-offs forwards or backwards, or whatever) isn't going to alter at all its popularity.

It does seems like the NFL is hoping that with a few fewer collisions each game that there is a smaller chance of suffering real injury, and that one will experience less wear-and-tear over a season and a career, which is probably good for the players and, ultimately, the fan.

If the NFL can make small tweaks to lessen, somewhat, the violence in the game such that players might end up being healthier overall, I feel like that's a pretty good trade to make.

by akn :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 9:00pm

The rule doesn't significantly reduce the average return, it eliminates a great number of them altogether. Of course the average return is boring, but the potential for a big return is still there. The new rule significantly reduces that potential, not just the average length.

Most running plays are "boring" as well. The tweaks to the rules regarding running plays may alter the average length of a run, but it never reduces the number of possible big runs. By making it easier to force a touchback, the situation is different for kickoffs. The potiential (hence excitement) is reduced.

by Lance :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:02pm

Sure, and I get that. In fact, I appreciate that point quite a bit: it's one of the reasons that the "people like scoring" argument is worthless. A fourth-and-goal situation where a team has to punch it in as time winds down for the game is exciting regardless of the result; it's the potential of the game-changing score that creates the excitement.

We obviously don't know what the result of this rule-change will be, but the reality is that we only see-- 10?-- kick-offs in a game. As the rules were before the change it seems that of those 10 or so kick-offs, depending on the team, ca. 15% (so, 1-2 a game) of them were already touchbacks. The new rule will increase this number, though it's hard to know by how much. But if we go from 8 or 9 true run-backs in a game to 3 or 4, will that really turn it into something really boring?

In all, my argument was that we should be willing to trade off a little of this potential excitement (stressing that it is largely potential, since true game-changing run-backs are quite rare in a season, let alone in a game) for the improved health and longevity of the players.

by Marko :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:32pm

Bears fans like me (and undoubtedly fans of the Browns and a few other teams) strongly disagree that kickoff returns are boring and that "true game-changing run-backs are quite rare in a season, let alone in a game." We are not just talking about TD returns; we are also talking about 40 or 50 yard returns that set up our team in great field position. Also, a forced fumble on a kickoff return is very exciting and potentially game-changing. We lose a significant amount of this potential excitement with the new rule.

by Lance :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 5:51pm

I don't think that kick-off returns are boring; they're as interesting to me as any other aspect of the game. However, I reject the argument that having fewer of them-- and in their places, a few more touchbacks-- somehow takes anything significant from one's overall enjoyment of the game.

I guess the Chicago reference is to Devin Hester? Yeah, so he's a truly exceptional talent that gives Chicago some small advantage in that aspect of the game. But even then, what are we talking about? He had two kick-off returns for TD in each of 2006 and 2007. In 2008, his long was 55 yards. In 2009, it was 41 yards. Last year it was better-- he had a 79 yard return then. If we assume I'm missing out on a few that aren't recorded in these stat summaries-- and if we assume that any long kick-off return is, in fact, a "game-changing run-back", then we're talking about perhaps ten to twelve events in the span of five seasons, or ca. two per season. If that's not the definition of "quite rare" then you'll have to tell me what is. And this is from a guy who is by any measure, quite exceptional!

Yes, we lose potential excitement. Obviously, when a team with a good return man is about to receive a kick-off, any viewer is going to think "this could turn into a big play!" and we won't have as much of that when we know that the kick is going to be a touch-back.

In the big picture, though, I don't think anyone is going to walk about of a game thinking that it wasn't exciting or fun due largely to a few fewer kick-off returns. And I'm willing to trade that for the improved health and longevity of players.

by tuluse :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 7:15pm

The Bears produced 14.6 points of value from kick returns, the median last year was -1.

The overall special teams rating for the Bears was 6.3 making it almost as valuable as their defense was at -7.7%.

If you don't think a 55 yard yard return is game changing, then I think we have very different ideas about what field position is worth.

by Marko :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 9:03pm

First of all, the reference is not just to Devin Hester. In recent years, the Bears also have used Danieal Manning (who this year signed with the Texans as a free agent) and Johnny Knox on kickoff returns. Both of them had kickoff return TDs. Off the top of my head, I remember an 83 yard TD by Manning against the Saints in 2008 (http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/09000d5d80d3e092/WK-15-Dan...) and a 102 yard TD by Knox against the Lions in 2009 (http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/09000d5d81321769/WK-4-Can-...). Both of those plays were important plays that helped the Bears win. That Manning highlight above also includes a 52 yard kickoff retiurn later in the game the set the Bears up for another score. Manning ranked 14th in the league in kickoff returns last year and had a long of 62 yards. In 2008, Manning led all qualifiers in kickoff returns with an average of 29.7 yards per return. http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/player/_/stat/returning/sort/yardsPerK.... In 2009, Knox ranked second in the league among qualifiers with an average of 29.0 yards per return. http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/player/_/stat/returning/sort/yardsPerK....

As for Hester, he only returned 12 kickoffs last season, but he had the highest average in the league (35.6) for anyone with more than two kickoff returns: http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/player/_/stat/returning/sort/yardsPerK....

So if you think the Bears have only had 10 or 12 game-changing kickoff returns in the past 5 years, you must not have watched them that often and obviously don't know about the kickoff return exploits of Manning and Knox. Knox played in the Pro Bowl as a kick returner after his rookie season of 2009, and Manning arguably should have made the Pro Bowl in 2008 over Hester.

The Bears routinely have enjoyed a huge advantage (not a mere small advantage) on special teams in general, including kickoff returns. Some teams have been so afraid of Hester, Manning and Knox that they squib kick rather than kick deep, leading to other Bears fielding kickoffs at around the 20 or 25 yard line and returning the ball to around the 35 or 40 yard line. It's no wonder that the Bears typically lead the league (or are very close to first) in average starting field position. (This is not entirely due to kickoff returns, as defense and other special teams also play a part in this.) If you don't think this can have a significant effect on a game, I don't know what to tell you.

As for your statement that "I don't think anyone is going to walk about [sic] of a game thinking that it wasn't exciting or fun due largely to a few fewer kick-off returns," I'm sure there will be lots of Bears fans, Browns fans and fans of other teams who will think the game wasn't as exciting or fun as it would have been with more kickoff returns. As for the injury argument, I have not seen any study suggesting that having fewer kickoff returns would result in improved health and longevity of players.

by Eddo :: Sun, 08/21/2011 - 12:03pm

Jason Lisk has an article at The Big Lead that touches on injuries. He admits he doesn't have access to the NFL's injury studies, but does cite a study of high school football injuries:

"Some of the lowlights as it relates to injuries for high school football players:
" * 32.7% of injuries on kickoffs and punts were “severe” (defined as 21 or more missed days), compared to 19.3% on other plays.
" * 20.3% of injuries on kickoffs and punts were concussions, compared to 10.9% on other plays.
"I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant those directional findings are to the NFL (which is saying, like that study, that serious injuries occur more frequently on kickoffs)."

Personally, as a Bears fan, I kind of like the move. One, it will have at least a small positive effect on player safety (as Lisk says, don't let the best be the enemy of the better). Two, it helps make overtime fairer without overhauling the system. Three, it might actually help the Bears and their weak-legged kicker.

by Marko :: Sun, 08/21/2011 - 5:24pm

Based just on the face of your comment (I haven't read the article), I don't think the conclusion that "serious injuries occur more frequently on kickoffs" necessarily follows from what is written above. What the above does suggest is that the rate of serious injuries vs. non-serious injuries is higher on kickoffs than it is on other plays. However, the above tells us nothing about the frequency that injuries occur on kickoffs as compared to other plays.

Hypothetically, let's say that injuries (serious or non-serious) occur on 5% of kickoffs vs. 25% on other plays. That would mean that injuries of any kind occur far more frequently on other plays, and based on the above rates, that a player is far more likely to suffer a serious injury on other plays than on kickoffs.

Again, I haven't read the article, and the injury rates I used were completely made up. But without knowing that, I don't think we can say that serious injuries occur more frequently on kickoffs.

As for the Bears, while it might help the Bears a little bit when Gould is kicking off, I think they will be hurt far more when they are returning kicks (or unfortunately not returning kicks). Of course, this effect should be lessened later in the season when the Bears are playing in the elements.

by nat :: Mon, 08/22/2011 - 9:07am

didn't mean to post here. move along.

by akn :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 9:53pm

With the KO largely eliminated as worthwhile play to watch, before the next play from scrimmage the sequence after a TD is scored now looks like:

1. Official review
2. Commercial
3. PAT
4. Commercial
5. KO for touchback
6. Commercial

Thats probably a good 10+ minutes. The non-hardcore fan is likely going to step away/channel-surf, and may not come back for a while.

Sure, no single tweak is going to make dramatic swings in the popularity of football, but they can and will add up. You say there will be improved health/longevity of players as a result. That's probably true, but I doubt it will impact safety as significantly as it takes away from the excitement of the game. The cost/benefit is not worth it.

But I'm a Bears fan, so you can ignore me if you like. That is, until a new rule affecting your favorite team's strength is enacted.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 10:33pm

In the huge sample of two games I've seen this year the official review has been seamless, and following the touchback offenses have lined up and played without an intervening commercial, which leaves 3, 4, and 5. Even disregarding that as preseason-specific all that you're talking about is changing 5 from "KO with 16% chance for touchback" to "KO with 37% chance for touchback." Ho-hum. If I'm up getting a drink for one, I'm up getting a drink for the other.

by akn :: Sun, 08/21/2011 - 8:35am

From a Clayton tweet:

For what it's worth, 90 percent of the kickoffs went into the endzone this week. Last week, the percentage was 78.

That may not necessarily correspond to touchbacks, but this is still the preseason, where teams are more likely to take a risk on running it out.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Sun, 08/21/2011 - 3:12pm

16% and 37% were last year's numbers from the respective kickoff lines (due to penalties). Preseason is weird and generally not representative. Of course the higher number may very well stick; it's hard to know for sure at this point.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 7:19pm

Even discounting the injury angle, as a viewer I think decreasing the relative importance of special teams makes the game better and more interesting. While they're at it how about making a touchdown worth the 7 points or 6 and a try at the discetion of the scoring team? I don't need to see so many extremely high probability PAT kicks.

by akn :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 9:58pm

And how crappy is the special teams on your favorite team?

by BaronFoobarstein :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 10:35pm

Right in the middle of the pack. Do we have to prefer teams that excel in a certain aspect of the game to have opinions on it now?

by akn :: Sun, 08/21/2011 - 2:47am

I never said you weren't entitled to your opinion, but it's certainly biased by the majority of games you watch. Your team is in the middle of the pack in special teams, so the majority of game you watch involves watching ho-hum special teams play. You're not losing much excitement, and hence your apathy at eliminating special teams plays.

The team I watch excels at special teams, and every play is exciting for me to watch, whether something spectacular happens or not. I'm losing a lot of excitement in knowing that significantly more special teams plays will be rendered unwatchable as they will result in touchbacks (or barely returnable kicks), hence my outcry.

I don't mind passing rules to improve safety, but this rule doesn't tweak the play, it eliminates a significantly larger number of them altogether. It's as if the NFL is admitting that the only way they know to improve safety on kickoffs is to eliminate more of them from the game. If that's the case, then the NFL should simply admit that fact and eliminate all kickoffs as you suggest. If that isn't the case, then any rule changes should change the manner in which kickoffs happen (like the 2-man wedge rule) instead of simply eliminating more of them.

by Scott C :: Sat, 08/20/2011 - 2:07am

on-sides kickoff attempts are one of the most fun plays in football. Moving it forward might make coaches more likely to try them.

by Tybalt the Greenish (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:16am

Well football is also dangerous, maybe we should just cancel the NFL.

I get the point. But wouldn't it be better to make the kickoffs safer, rather than just eliminate them? Maybe there's no way, but I would have thought something could be done.

by rk (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 1:40pm

Well, they got rid of the wedge last year. I suppose that wasn't enough.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:16am

Very nice, thanks

by morganja :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:18am

I'm not sure I entirely follow the logic. Isn't there a bunch of contact long before the ball actually lands. I mean the special teamers are running down the field and guys are blocking them.

by Southern Philly :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 11:24am

Almost all of the injury inducing contact comes during the return. Guys hitting the wedge or in the wedge being hit being the big ones. They tried to reduce it by making only 2 man wedges legal, but it didn't work out so well.

by roguerouge :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:25am

The idea is that kickoffs result in more injuries and more serious injuries like paralysis. That's why they also shortened the run-up from 10 yards to 5 yards that the other 10 people on the kicking team can do. They also removed 3 man wedges for safety reasons as well.

I have absolutely no problem with this plan if it achieves its goal of less paralyzed players. It not only sucks for the player, their family, their friends and their teammates, it sucks the life and entertainment out of the game. Paralysis is bad for the NFL's business.

by bingo762 :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 12:51pm

By the time the players from one side reach the players from the other, they ar at full speed. So shortening the run up won't really do anything.

I read in the Philly Daily News an interesting alternative to kickoffs by Andy Reid (or maybe it was the coach from Rutgers): Make kickoffs a 4th&15 punting situation.

by bingo762 :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 12:55pm

Ok. It was the coach from Rutgers that said that. Reid had an idea as far as blocking is concerned. Here's a link to the article: http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/paul_domowitch/127695843.html

by akn :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 8:47pm

The 5 yard rule is ridiculous.

Do you really believe pro players' acceleration is that slow? Most athletes can achieve max speed within a few steps. 5 yards or 10 yards, makes no difference.

by roguerouge :: Mon, 08/22/2011 - 4:51pm

No, I think the 5 yard rule is ridiculous too on health grounds, but that is how they're selling it.

It will be interesting for onside kicks, however.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:26am

What about the Oakland Coliseum? The Raiders share the field with the A's during the baseball season, how will they get around the whole infield dirt problem if everything must be green?

by Theo :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 4:13pm

Paint the dirt green?
However, they didn't do this for the Pre Season opener vs the Cards.

Good question.

by andrew :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 12:52pm

So... centers do not need to snap the ball between their legs? I remember in our neighborhood pickup games we'd often have someone "side-snap" the ball, but then again the rushers were required to count to "3-mississippi" before rushing anyway...

by sjt (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 2:41pm

Nope. Its been that way for as long as I can remember. There are many trick plays which rely on this quirk in the rules.

by sjt (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 2:44pm

I meant at the lower levels, not the NFL. Never seen it done there.

by Theo :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 4:03pm

I've seen the "wrong ball" trick on youtube.
I've seen a big sweep by the center in real life. (He sweeps it far wide to a wide receiver, like a hockey player shoots - but the center's arm is the stick and the ball the puck - yes I'm ridiculously good at describing things)

by andrew :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 7:06pm

I really wish the "center sneak" were a legal play. It was a staple of our neighborhood games... (when center snaps, he keeps a grip on the football and after qb touches it he just scoots forward).... NFL rules would insist this can only be done if the center turns and quares his shoulders towards his own end zone before accepting the ball form the QB.

by Theo :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 4:00pm

So technically, you can score a touchdown without reaching the endzone.
You don't make it by an inch. You ask for a measurement, they rotate the ball, and the tip reaches the endzone.

by Andrew Potter :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 4:10pm

The rule specifies not to change how far forward the farthest forward part of the ball is.

by Theo :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 4:15pm

*rereads, realizes his own mistake, thanks Big-Hairy-Andy*

by Sifter :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 6:24pm

My argument would be that ANY kicking in the NFL is pretty lame, especially on TV. Who follows the ball on punts on TV? You have to squint hard on a small-normal sized TV to see a completely brown ball against the crowd on field goals. And PATs are about as suspenseful and interesting as a lecture on quantum physics.

by Theo :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 6:44pm

We all play four down football on Madden. Kicking other than kickoffs is prohibited when we play with friends and I've had a punter on my madden franchise that punted a grand total of 2 times in his career when he retired.
In real life though, it's a big strategy and it gives the second and third stringers a job.

by dbostedo :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 8:00pm

"You have to squint hard on a small-normal sized TV"

I'd recommend getting a much larger TV. Particularly for football. (Well, hockey benefits a lot as well.)

by akn :: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 8:52pm

Who needs HDTV? My 30 year old tube with rabbit ears work just fine, thank you.

Now get off my lawn!