A closer look at the rule changes the NFL is debating

The Washington Post

March 1, 2023

NFL representatives and members of the competition committee began their annual deliberations over potential rule changes and policy modifications this week at the scouting combine.

It does not appear likely the league will enact any major rule change this offseason. The process will play out in the coming weeks, leading to votes by the team owners on proposed changes during the annual league meeting in late March in Phoenix.

Here’s a look at what was discussed during this week’s competition committee meetings.

The Los Angeles Rams have proposed making roughing-the-passer calls reviewable by instant replay. It appears to be a long shot that the proposal will receive the 24 votes from the 32 owners necessary for ratification.

Proposals made by teams go before the owners for consideration regardless of whether the competition committee endorses them. But the committee’s support can be crucial for approval, and in this case there seems to be little support among committee members.

The committee generally opposes making such subjective calls subject to replay. It made an exception in the 2019 season, when the league and owners made pass interference calls and non-calls reviewable by replay in the aftermath of the uproar over the missed call during the previous season’s NFC championship game. But most regarded the system as a failure, and the NFL and the owners scrapped it after only one season.

The league and committee are discussing the possibility of making hip-drop tackles illegal. The tackling technique resulted in postseason ankle injuries to Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The issue was discussed during this week’s meeting between NFL health and safety officials and the competition committee.

“That’s relatively new, from a study perspective for the health and safety side,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. “So there’s a lot more that needs to be done. And the committee encouraged us to come back to them in the next few weeks with more research, more play types, more injury rates. We certainly shared with them that the severity of the injuries on hip-drop tackle is higher than your average injury rate. We’ve looked specifically at high ankle sprains and saw a much higher than average injury rate when that sort of tackle is implemented.”

Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, said the technique has resulted from an effort to avoid head-to-head contact.

“The intent is obviously not to injure a player,” Vincent said. “But we’ve seen a few.”

There’s debate about enacting a rule against pushing the quarterback on sneaks. The Philadelphia Eagles, in particular, became enthralled with the technique of using Jalen Hurts’s offensive teammates to push him forward on quarterback sneaks. It was effective. But there is concern, Vincent said, that the approach will result in an injury that could be avoided if the NFL makes it illegal for a teammate to push a ballcarrier forward.

Some coaches expressed support this week for keeping the play legal. There is strategy involved, they argued. If defenses begin to line up additional players to push the other direction, for example, an offense could fake the sneak and make a quick throw to a receiver on the perimeter of the formation. But there also could be an aesthetic consideration; some observers say the technique resembles a rugby scrum more than a football play.

The conversation will continue at the league meeting, Vincent said.

The league is looking for ways to make punts safer. The NFL implemented new rules for kickoffs in 2018, saying they were necessary because of the high rate of concussions players suffered on kickoffs. There was consideration of eliminating kickoffs if those rules were not effective in making them safer. League leaders continue to say something similar must be devised for punts, although they have not yet come up with specific solutions.

“Punts and kickoffs, for several years now, have had a higher injury rate than other plays,” Miller said. “And so we went through that in some detail with the committee and talked about areas that we could continue to research and talk about.”

One possibility could be implementing rules to restrict double-team blocking against the gunners lined up on the outside of the punting team’s formation.

There were indications that a team has proposed the fourth-and-15 alterative to the onside kick. Again. The measure has come up in previous offseasons and never was particularly close to receiving the support necessary for ratification. Some owners consider it too much of a gimmick. It would give a team the option to try to retain possession by converting a fourth-and-15 play from its own 25-yard line. If successful, that team would keep possession of the ball, and its drive would continue. If it failed, the opponent would take possession at the spot at which the play ended.

A third-quarterback rule could be on the way. It probably was inevitable a team would propose addressing the third-quarterback rule after the San Francisco 49ers were left without a healthy quarterback during their lopsided loss in the NFC championship game because of injuries to Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson. It apparently has happened.

The details were not available, but the measure perhaps would allow a team to list a third quarterback who would be inactive on game day and eligible to play only if the other two quarterbacks are injured. The counter-argument is that there’s nothing preventing a team from using three spots on the active game-day roster on quarterbacks.

Unlimited instant replay reviews may be on the table. It is believed a team proposed allowing unlimited instant replay challenges during a game, as long as a team keeps getting its challenges right. Once one fails, that would be it. This, too, might be too gimmicky for some owners.

NFL health and safety officials said they are recommending expanded use of Guardian Caps. The puffy caps attached to the outside of players’ helmets proved effective at curbing concussions. There was a 52 percent reduction for players at the positions — offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends — required to wear the caps for a portion of practices at training camps last summer.

“We talked about adding position groups [and] adding the period of time they were to be worn,” Miller said. “During the offseason, we’re taking the feedback we got from players on fit, on heat and other things and studying those. And so they’ll get a redesigned Guardian Cap this year. … We’ll recommend strongly that more players wear it for a longer period of time.”

According to Miller, about 150 players continued to wear the caps during regular season practices.

“There would be no reason that they shouldn’t,” Miller said. “That’s one of the topics that we’re talking about. [It’s] certainly not a mandate yet. But it’s a topic of conversation.”

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