More changes are coming to the NFL this fall.
The NFL’s 32 owners congregated last week to vote on a bevy of suggested rules changes that would take effect ahead of this fall’s upcoming 2021 campaign.
One of the major changes that were approved was an increase to the powers of the replay official after many coaches made calls for game day officials to receive more oversight. The owners had rejected more involved suggestions such as adding a new booth umpire, which was posited by the Baltimore Ravens, who are a top five team heading into next season with +1,100 NFL odds to win the Super Bowl.
Instead of adding another official, the owners decided to give the existing replay officials, who sit in the press box of the stadiums they’re working on, the authority to consult with the referees on the ground on, as the rule states, “specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present.”
They can’t start tossing their own flags from the press box or reverse calls on their own authority, but they’ll serve as something as a voice of reason in the ear of the referees based on broadcast replays they’ve seen. The areas of the game where these new responsibilities would apply include: possession, completed or picked off passes, where the ball is relative to the boundary or end zone, and whether someone is down by contact.
This is a big jump from last season, when replay officials only had a say if a play went under review due to a coach’s challenge or a close call in the final two minutes of a half. Though they have been informally giving refs this advice for some time now, they can officially help their brethren out now without a coach having to waste a challenge on an obviously blown call.
There were two other major rules changes among a list of many smaller adjustments approved by the owners last week. The first of these is the removal of many jersey number restrictions for various positions. Players will now have a wider range of number options that is very similar to what they have in the NCAA.
The expansion is mostly allowing for wideouts, running backs, tight ends, defensive backs, and linebackers to begin wearing numbers in the single digits and teens, which were previously restricted to QBs, kickers, and punters, while the teens were also available for wideouts.
However, because of preexisting rules, players that change their number for the 2021 season will have to buy out the NFL’s inventory of their previous jersey. Players who give notice in 2021 for an intended change in 2022 do not have to do this though.
While this change, which was put forth by the Kansas City Chiefs, has mostly been met with universal acclaim, quarterback Tom Brady of the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has voiced great frustration with how this will affect his reading of players and schemes on the field. Considering he’s the undisputed Greatest Of All Time, we have a feeling he’ll figure a way to crack this nut.
Another big rule change concerned the onside kick. While the previous two rules discussed are expected to be permanent, this one is much more experimental and will be tried out on a one-year trial basis. In 2021, only three of 67 onside kicks were recovered, the lowest total and recovery rate since at least 2001.
Recently, changes to the kickoff that were designed to make the regular kick safer had the side effect of making onside recoveries near-on impossible. Since those rules changes the recovery rate is just above eight, compared to a 19.7 rate in the previous two decades.
Some teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, have suggested replacing the onside kick altogether and instead giving the offense an attempt to gain 15 yards on one play from their own 25-yard-line, which was promptly refused. Instead they went with a modest proposal to limit the receiving team to just nine players in the receiving zone instead of the 11 that they were allowed last year.
It seems doubtful that this will engender much of a difference in the recovery rate, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. The league needs to find a way to keep games with multi-score deficits interesting later into the contest, and onside kicks are crucial for that. Getting back a rate closer to 1 in 5 will do wonders for the excitement of the sport.
Other changes accepted by the owners included but are not limited to: the elimination of overtime for preseason games, loss of down if player catches his own pass and throws another one on the same play, increased focus on the limitation of taunting, and completion of a large study on holding calls and why there were so few called in 2020, among others.