The NFL’s 2019 Approved Rule Changes and the Potential for Unintended Consequences

The NFL announced last Tuesday that seven new playing rules were approved at the NFL Owners Meetings in Phoenix, Arizona. The approved rule changes include: 1) Making the kickoff rule changes that were implemented last season permanent; 2) Expanded protection to a defenseless player by eliminating blindside blocks that include any forcible contact by the blocker with his head, shoulder or forearm; 3) Updating the enforcement of double fouls when there is a change of possession; 4) Simplifying the application of rules involving missed field goals; 5) Giving teams the option to enforce an opponent’s personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct foul committed during a touchdown on the succeeding try (extra point or two-point conversion) or on the succeeding kickoff; 6) For one year, expanding reviewable plays to include pass interference, called or not called on the field, while also expanding automatic replay reviews to include turnovers negated by a foul and any extra point or two-point conversion; and 7) Expanded the NFL’s power to disqualify players for both flagrant football and non-football acts committed on the field of play.

In a recent appearance on the Rich Eisen Show, Former NFL Vice President of Officiating and current Fox Sports NCAA and NFL Rules Analyst, Dean Blandino, called the new rule allowing for the review of pass interference “the most significant change that we’ve seen since they brought replay back in 1999” and a “major, major deal”.

Many of these rule changes are straightforward, and were implemented for no other reason than to promote player safety, simplify rules, promote competitive equity, and seek consistency. Lasts season’s kickoff rule changes, which UB Law discussed during the 2018 NFL Preseason, were made permanent because they resulted in concussions being reduced on kickoffs by thirty-eight percent when compared to the previous three seasons, according to NFL Football Operations. Additionally, with kickers missing approximately sixteen percent of their field goals in 2018, simplifying the application of rules after a missed field goal promotes player safety as well. And updating the way in which double fouls are enforced when there is a change of possession promotes competitive equity, by ruling that “the team last in possession shall retain the ball, and the fouls offset at the spot where its foul would be enforced if it was the only foul”.

In addition to double fouls, giving the teams the option to apply a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to an extra point or two-point conversion attempt will make players less willing to commit the foul. As many fans know, the worst outcome that would previously come out of one of those fouls would be a longer kickoff. But with many of today’s NFL kickers able to consistently kick footballs through the back of the endzone on a kickoff, the possibility of a forty-eight yard extra point or seventeen yard two-point attempt makes the penalty sting much more for a team that just scored a touchdown.

Which Changes Will Be The Topic Of Conversation On A Weekly Basis?

There are three rule changes that will be discussed ad nauseam on a week-by-week basis in the NFL. Those rules include the elimination of blindside blocks, the NFL’s power to disqualify players for both flagrant football and non-football acts committed on the field of play, and of course the expanding reviewable plays to include pass interference.

It is fair to look at all three rule changes and consider how they could possibly be interrelated going forward. The NFL is eliminating blindside blocks where the blocker makes forcible contact with his head, shoulder, or forearm to an unsuspecting defender. This rule is certainly the most black and white, in regards to the letter of the law. But NFL officials’ newfound ability to eject a player for a flagrant football act on the field of play, not just non-football acts, gives the NFL a system similar to what the NCAA has with targeting in college football. The rule change allows for individuals at the NFL’s officiating office in New York to determine if a player committed a foul that warranted disqualification, and then communicate this fact to the on-field official before the next play. So not only will the previously existing fouls that warrant disqualification be enforced, but these new rules will likely lead to players being ejected for particularly egregious blindside blocks throughout the 2019 season. Logan Thomas’s week 17 block on Miami Dolphins DB Torry McTyer comes to mind. The question remains as to whether the NFL intended for the ejections that are likely to come as a result of these two rules, or if these too would be considered an unintended consequence.

Additionally, with the league’s ever-expanding reliance on video review to ensure calls, or non-calls, are correct, as showcased by the expansion of reviewable plays to include pass interference calls and non-calls in 2019, it can be assumed that a targeting-like system of review could be a part of the NFL game sooner rather than later. If this were to occur, one would have to assume the rules would include replay officials having the power to review the controversial roughing the passer penalties fans have scrutinized over the past two seasons, and hits on defenseless player penalties, like the penalty received by Los Angeles Rams DB Nickell Robey-Coleman in Super Bowl LIII.

What Are The Unintended Consequences?

We have already touched on many of the intended consequences surrounding these rule changes. Reducing concussions and promoting player safety overall, getting calls right on the field, seeking consistency, and simplifying rules just to name a few. But what concerns should the NFL have for situations that were not meant to be addressed with these new rules? Dean Blandino touched on some of these concerns on his appearance on the Rich Eisen Show.

“What if there’s a pass interference that’s called, but now the ball is not catchable? Can we review that? Can the coach challenge that the ball was not catchable? What if it’s called pass interference on the field, but the ball wasn’t in the air? Can a coach now challenge “hey, there was a lot of contact, but it should’ve been illegal contact or it should’ve been defensive holding, because the ball wasn’t in the air”? Can we pick up that flag, and now because defensive holding and illegal contact aren’t reviewable, you can’t put that part of it on?…It’s not gonna be as simple as “yeah, the Saints/Rams play. Great. Easy pass interference, put the flag down, let’s move on”.

Blandino went on to predict that the development of the NFL’s standard and application of the new pass interference penalty would take place in the preseason and into the regular season, much like NFL fans saw with the roughing the passer penalties in 2018.

But outside of the on-field unintended consequences, what are the consequences off the field? After the no-call in New Orleans, a New Jersey sportsbook called PointsBet issued refunds for all bets made on the Saints in the form of bonus bets. Additionally, multiple civil suits were filed against the NFL on behalf of fans who claimed to have suffered a loss as a result of the blown call. However, it is unlikely that anything legitimate comes out of the civil suits.

The question becomes, now, whether these things become commonplace with the potential can of worms opened by the new rules regarding video reviews. Keep in mind that inside two minutes, the decision to review comes from the booth and not from a coach’s challenge. With the power of social media, will outrage over a missed call or no-call impact gambling even more? Is the NFL setting themselves up for more litigation if a legitimate suit ever does come to fruition as a result of the precedent to be set by the new replay rules? And there is always potential for every new rule change to come up in CBA negotiations.

Thus is life in the NFL, however. And what better way to ring in the 2019 season than with a little bit of controversy?

Photo Courtesy: Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

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